ROME - Italian police have seized 85,000 tonnes of green olives treated with copper sulphate to brighten their color, and thousands of tonnes of foreign olive oil being passed off as "Made in Italy".
Nineteen people face charges over the "painted" olives, including use of banned additives and planning to sell edible goods containing dangerous substances, the forestry police said on Wednesday.
Old olives from previous years' harvests which had lost their colour were "recycled" with a coat of copper sulphate to give them an intense and uniform green color.
Copper sulphate was a clever choice, police said, because it is not normally classified as a colorant so food control authorities do not usually test for it.
The home of pizza and prosciutto has long struggled against counterfeiting of its prized culinary goods, and police estimate the domestic market for fake foodstuffs is worth around 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) a year.
Police also said they put six people under investigation in the southern Puglia region and seized 7,000 tonnes of olive oil purporting to be the Italian "extra virgin" variety which is prized for its rich taste and health benefits.
DNA tests showed the olives that yielded the oil were not from Italy, until recently the world's second biggest olive oil producer, but places including Syria and Turkey, the police statement said.
Thousands of tonnes of foreign oil falsely labelled as Italian had also been sold in the United States and Japan, police said, feeding fears that counterfeits could damage the reputation of Italian food. Producers rely on a perception of luxury to sell at higher prices abroad.
Italian authorities say the olive industry's nightmare year between 2014 and 2015, when bad weather, a fruit fly blight and a deadly bacterium hit crops, left the market more vulnerable to the risk of counterfeiting.
Over-exposure to copper sulphate, normally used in pesticide products, can cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. It can be lethal in some cases.