Low-quality or even fake olive oil has been a problem for quite a while—going back at least to the Romans. In extreme cases, the “olive oil” you’re buying isn’t even made from olives, but from nuts, seeds, or soybeans.
And now, there’s a way to prove whether olive oil is real and high-enough quality for the “extra virgin” designation. To show its bona fides, Tunisian olive oil producer CHO has teamed up with IBM, using blockchain—an encrypted, decentralized database used to track transactions—to document key steps in a shipment’s lifetime. The technology will be able to verify the authenticity of extra virgin olive oil sold under CHO’s Terra Delyssa brand.
The digital ledger records eight key details about each shipment, such as the orchard where the olives were grown, the mill where they were crushed, and facilities where the oil was filtered. Because a blockchain database has multiple copies, held by different parties, any change to the record has to be agreed upon by everyone involved—which means a single party can’t manipulate the records and fool you into thinking you’re buying legit olive oil when you’re not. Starting with oil from the November crop, due in stores in March, customers will be able to access this information by scanning a QR code on each bottle with their smartphone. CHO says the oil will be available at retailers in the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, and Japan.
This isn’t a one-off for IBM. The company has an entire division called IBM Food Trust that offers blockchain to track the food supply chain. Launched in 2017, Food Trust now has more than 200 members, including brands like Terra Delyssa and companies involved in other parts of the supply chain, such as shipping.
Walmart, an early partner that helped develop the system, is requiring end-to-end tracking for its leafy green vegetables. French retailer Carrefour is using IBM’s blockchain to track dozens of fresh-food products, such as chicken, eggs, milk, oranges, and pork. (The retailer also built an app that customers can use to scan and learn about these products.) Knowing exactly where a shipment came from can help a store quickly find out if its inventory is from a tainted batch.
Who can you trust?
Are blockchain and QR codes necessary to make sure you get good olive oil? Not necessarily. As in every industry, quality is a matter of trust. The fact that CHO is implementing this detailed documentation program is a good sign that it’s a trustworthy brand, of course. But there are other signs you can look for as well, as food fraud buster Larry Olmsted detailed in an article on olive oil for Epicurious. For instance, the more information on the bottle, the better the chances that the oil is legit. Bottles with details such as the harvest date and the name of the estate and mill are good signs—whether or not they are also written to the blockchain. Technical details like the free fatty acidity (FFA) level are another sign that the vendor is serious.
The country of origin can also say a lot. While Italian olive oil may be the most famous, it’s not inherently the best, and Italy is not the top producer of olive oil. That honor goes to Spain. (A lot of the olive oil on store shelves may be bottled in Italy, however). As a bacteria called Xylella fastidiosa has damaged European olive orchards, Tunisia has emerged as one of the biggest and well-regarded oil exporters—making Terra Delyssa’s Tunisian provenance legitimate. Olmsted told Epicurious that Australia has the most stringent standards and an advanced quality-testing system. The country is also known for not mixing fresh oil with leftovers from the previous harvest, he said.
Using blockchain to document the steps in producing, testing, and shipping olive oil, or any other product, helps support its legitimacy. For a food product that’s faced so many problems with low quality and counterfeiting, it’s an extra step toward trust.