Crime wave has gripped olive oil industry in top grower Spain Image Credit: Shutterstock

Another brazen theft of Spanish olive oil - this time worth over half a million dollars - is the latest example of how record prices are fueling a crime surge in the top grower.

Some 50,000 liters of extra virgin olive oil that were ready for bottling vanished in the early hours of Aug. 30 from a mill in Spain's Cordoba province. Thieves loaded €500,000 of top quality oil into two tanks in the darkness, a heist that a local producer group said probably took two hours.

Crime in the food world isn't new, but a wave of olive oil cases recently shows how hot the staple has become as Spain's drought sends prices soaring. Thefts and the sale of fraudulent products in stores are yet another headache for producers contending with extreme weather, higher costs and worries over demand as cash-strapped shoppers cut back.

"Everyone is worried because the price is going to keep climbing, and olive oil is truly becoming liquid gold," said Martin Parra, manager at Marin Serrano El Lagar SL, the company struck by last week's theft in Cordoba's Carcabuey.

Spain's olive crisis offers a reminder of how climate change threatens supply. A devastating drought slashed the nation's olive oil output in half in the 2022-23 season, and production challenges in Italy have helped crimp supplies globally. Dryness and heat waves this year have also threatened Spain's upcoming harvest, and farmer group ASAJA expects a similarly bad crop.

That's helped spot prices in the country's south to more than double from the start of last year. The cost of a bottle of extra virgin olive oil has jumped about 15% since mid-July in Spanish supermarkets, according to consumer association OCU.

Higher prices often encourage more crime in commodities from platinum to copper to lumber. For olives, bandits are targeting the fruit - either freshly picked or still on trees - as well as the processed oil. Some 259,000 kilograms of olives were stolen in Spain's key Jaen region in the 2022-23 season, up 29% from the previous year, according to a government body.

And in mid-August, burglars targeted 7,000 liters of olive oil stored in Teba, Malaga. They took packaged oil and even spilled some on the floor as they tried to bottle some themselves.

The staple is also a popular product to fake. In March, authorities in Spain's Extremadura region withdrew 11 brands from the market that had been mixed with other oils and which were not fit for consumption.

To improve security, producers like Parra are installing new gates or considering hiring guards. One hope for the oil stolen in Carcabuey is that the police find the culprits because they lack official traceability documents, according to Macarena Sanchez, head of the local olive oil mills association.

"But if they leave the country, I would certainly consider that oil lost," Parra said.