Tom Mueller: The Olive Oil Industry’s Own Private Eye


By Caroline J. Beck
November 01, 2011

Tom Mueller is probably best known for his undercover work that cracked the practice of importing fraudulently-labeled olive oil wide open with the publication of his article entitled Slippery Business in The New Yorker in 2007. Today, this exposé is still talked about as the quintessential story of an unethical business practice that, while widely followed, was never directly addressed until Mueller took it on full force. Since that time, Mueller has continued to bird-dog this issue to the delight of the virtuous and the dismay of the unscrupulous. The result is the publication of his new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

Why did you first get involved in the olive oil industry?

I began to look deeply into olive oil for the first time in 2007, when I wrote about it for The New Yorker. I'd already been living in Italy for over a decade, and thought I knew a fair bit about olive oils both good and bad, but I honestly had no idea what a wonderful – and distorted – world I was getting into. Nothing is as it seems.

What do you think is the industry’s biggest challenge?

Among large oil producers and traders, achieving truth in labeling – what's in the bottle or tin must correspond precisely to what's on the label. Among consumers, and a surprising number of producers, ignorance about what constitutes high-quality oil, and how to make it.

What do you most enjoy about the business?

The remarkable characters I've met, both small-scale producers of premium oil and big-time fraudsters alike. Olive oil seems to attract larger-than-life characters that are great fun to be with.

What are you working on now?

Writing, speaking, and writing some more about olive oil – and continuing my own education in this endlessly complex (and tasty) subject.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

For snow, Engadina in southern Switzerland. For adventure, the Amazon basin of Peru. For culture, tough to beat Paris. For wildlife, Botswana. For stars, the Sahara. For family (and fly fishing), north Idaho near the Canadian border.

What quality do you most admire in a person?

I'm powerless to resist someone who combines straightforward honesty with a quirky sense of humor.

What is your favorite food and olive oil pairing?

A potato of character, mashed and sloshed with a peppery, hyper-fresh koroneiki, picual or tuscan blend, the aromatics of the oil entering the steam and wafting up into your face . . . this deserves a place among America's great comfort foods.

What is your favorite place on earth?

My favorite city is Rome, because I see history in layers and Rome's layers are tangible. My favorite natural landscape is the pine forests and mountainscapes of the Pacific Northwest of North America, from Washington state north through British Columbia and the Yukon clear to Denali in south-central Alaska.

What is your most satisfying achievement?

Climbing a tough (for me) multi-pitch route on a sheer 1000-foot cliff in the Gorges du Verdon, with nothing in my mind the whole way but the next foot- or hand-hold.

What was your most memorable meal?

In June, I had a five (5) hour lunch at the Louis XV in Monte Carlo: 3 Michelin stars richly deserved.

What’s next on your horizon?

Building EXTRA VIRGINITY into "Truth in Olive Oil," a grass-roots movement in favor of oil quality that aims to tell consumers what fine olive oil is (and isn't), celebrate the life stories of fine oil-makers and help them get a fair price for their product, and encourage authorities to tighten and enforce olive oil regulations.