No, it’s not a joke. Apparently anti-fraud traffickers compare the profits from counterfeit olive oil are “to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.” Olive oil is often cut with less expensive vegetable oil and disguised with chlorophyll and beta carotene to look genuine, and fakes are surprisingly difficult to detect. So yes, scientific methodologies were undertaken to provide a way to discern between the good stuff and the fake.
Scientists from ETH Zurich have created tiny magnetic DNA particles that can be encapsulated in silica, and mixed in with the oil. The DNA can store tons of information such as the oil’s source and quality. They particles are small and cheap to produce, with a cost of about $.02 per bottle, according to R&D Magazine. Since they contain small pieces of iron oxide, they can be easily separated from the oil with a magnet, and then “read” rather easily via a process called PCR. As R&D Magazine noted, the method also “made it possible to detect adulteration: if the concentration of nano-particles does not match the original value, other oil—presumably substandard—must have been added.”
The idea of DNA in olive might not sound appealing, but either is paying good money for garbage. The particles are safe to eat, and the silica coating prevents the DNA from being absorbed into the body. Silica and iron oxide additives are already present in foods like ketchup and orange juice. In one trial, the researchers heated and cooled the oil, and the particles and DNA remained intact.