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Italy antitrust body probes suspect extra virgin olive oil

ROME - Italy's antitrust authority launched an investigation on Friday into seven companies suspected of passing off lower-quality olive oil as the extra virgin variety prized for its rich flavor and health benefits.

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ROME - Italy's antitrust authority launched an investigation on Friday into seven companies suspected of passing off lower-quality olive oil as the extra virgin variety prized for its rich flavor and health benefits.

Tests by police this week suggested oil sold as extra virgin by some of Italy's best-known brands may not meet strict labeling requirements, the authority said in a statement.

The probe comes after prosecutors in the northern city of Turin investigated the same companies on suspicion of commercial fraud and false labeling to deceive consumers.

Being put under investigation does not imply guilt and does not necessarily lead to charges, but the accusations are a blow to an industry that prides itself on quality.

Italy, the world's second largest producer of olive oil after Spain, exports hundreds of thousands of liters a year, contributing to an overall turnover that agriculture group Coldiretti estimates at 2 billion euros ($2.15 billion).

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The agriculture ministry has demanded clarity to protect consumers and producers.

Three of the brands under investigation are owned by Spanish olive oil giant Deoleo, which said its extra virgin variety passed scientific and taste tests in Italy.

Deoleo, which owns the Bertolli, Carapelli and Sasso brands, said it would ask Italian authorities to make counterchecks.

Renato Calabrese, director-general of the Pietro Coricelli brand, which is also in investigators' cross-hairs, rejected the allegations and questioned the science behind them.

"The objection is based on a taste test, not chemical or physical analysis," Calabrese told Reuters, adding that his company ensured its oil was subject to the latter kind of assessment.

The probe follows a nightmarish year for Italian olive oil producers, in which groves endured bad weather, a fruit-fly blight and a bacterial disease dubbed "olive tree leprosy."

Drought also reduced the harvest in No. 1 producer Spain, pushing the global olive oil price down to a nearly 10-year high.

But trade associations say the outlook is better this year. Italian groups Assitol and Federolio, citing the International Olive Oil Council, say the global harvest currently underway should yield 22 percent more than last year, and Italy should see an almost 60 percent increase.

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The agriculture ministry said its inspectors confiscated 10 million euros worth of fraudulent olive oil in 2014 in a move not related to the latest investigation.

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