After 41 years in the business, William A. Sauro knows a thing or two about importing olive oil.
And he found himself in recent months with a colorful mystery on his hands.
The gallon-sized tins he imports from Italy are topped by white or yellow plastic spouts--just like they've been for years. But the tins his Southern California competitors were offering were suddenly topped with red plastic spouts. And they were for sale for half as much.
This week, Sauro claimed he had unraveled the mystery. In a suit filed in federal court in Los Angeles, he contended that other suppliers have been falsely claiming that the olive oil they are selling is "pure."
Instead, according to Sauro--who said he spent $2,500 on private lab tests once he grew suspicious of his competitors' lower prices and different-colored spouts--the red-topped cans contain imported olive oil mixed by other Southern California firms with cottonseed, canola, corn or soybean oils.
The "grossly adulterated" oil is mislabeled as "pure" olive oil to retain the cachet and skyrocketing price of the real thing, the lawsuit claims. Those named in the suit either declined to comment or could not be reached.
Sauro said he felt he had no choice but to go to court. "People out there, the consumers, they're getting ripped off with this type of thing," he said. What seems to be at work, Sauro said, is the law of supply and demand. In recent months, drought and then floods have sharply reduced the supply of oil produced in Europe, where most of the world's olives are grown. At the same time, demand for olive oil in the United States keeps climbing, in large part because of the perception that olive oil is healthier than other oils. Olive oil has been a kitchen sensation since 1985, when a study reported that it lowered LDL ("bad") cholesterol without lowering HDL ("good") cholesterol.
Sauro said that in 1994, after importing the oil, he would sell it wholesale for about $6 per gallon.
Now, he says, his family-owned firm, Tama Trading Co., must sell its oil for $12 to $15 a gallon.
Other importers, however, are still offering their oil for sale in California, Nevada and Washington state for about $6 a gallon, he said.
In March, one of Sauro's salespeople brought him a competitor's can. For the first time, he noticed that it was topped with the red cap.
This summer, Sauro's attorneys, Nancy E. Fitzhugh and J. Neil Gieleghem, ordered a test. An investigator, shopping at San Fernando Valley stores, bought red-spouted tins bearing the Cornelia, Ligaro and Primi labels. Then the lawyers shipped the tins to SGS Control Services, a Memphis, Tenn., laboratory.
According to the SGS tests, the gallon of Cornelia-brand "pure olive oil" contained at least 60% canola oil, and Cornelia-brand "olive pomace oil" was 90% cottonseed oil. "Pomace" includes various residues from the oil pressing and manufacturing process, and some people prefer its flavor to that of other olive oils. The lab also reported that Primi-brand "olive pomace oil" was 90% soybean oil, and that Ligaro-brand "olive pomace oil" was 90% corn oil.
Michael Shuman, an executive at Los Angeles-based Vernon Foods, which distributes Primi, declined to comment on the tests or on the suit. Alto Foods distributes Ligaro and Atlapac Trading Co. distributes Cornelia, according to the lawsuit. State corporation records list the same Los Angeles address for both companies and identify Timothy F. Torrington as Alto Foods' registered agent and Atlapac's president. Torrington was abroad and unavailable for comment, according to Debra Jenkins, who answered a call to Atlapac's offices. She declined to comment on the suit.
The suit asks for a recall of all "falsely labeled" products. It seeks general and punitive damages.