More than €100 million worth of potentially dangerous food and drinks were seized in the latest Operation OPSON, co-ordinated by Europol’s Intellectual Property Crime Coordination Centre and Interpol. So far, 672 individuals have been arrested, with investigations ongoing in many countries.
Police, customs, national food regulatory authorities and private sector partners across 78 countries took part in the five-month OPSON VIII operation which ran from December 2018 to April 2019. All photos: Europol
In total, some 16 000 tonnes and 33 million litres of potentially dangerous fake food and drink were seized as a result of more than 67 000 checks carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and industrial estates. Tampered expiry dates on cheese and chicken, controlled medicines added to drink products and meat stored in unsanitary conditions were some of the offences revealed during the operation. As in previous operations, illicit alcohol was the most seized item, totalling over 33 000 metric tonnes, followed by cereals, grains and condiments.
“This operation shows yet again that criminals will take advantage of any and every opportunity open to them to make a profit. The volume of the seizures confirms that food fraud affects all types of products, and all regions of the world,” said Jari Liukku, Head of Europol’s European Serious and Organised Crime Centre. “It is hurting the consumers’ wallets: in the best of cases, food fraud is the deception of consumers, whereby they pay for something they do not get, but in the worst cases, food fraud can result in serious harm to the public’s health. It is the duty of Europol and law enforcement more generally to make sure that what consumers get on their plates is genuine and safe.”
Interpol’s Director of Organised and Emerging Crime, Paul Stanfield added: “Counterfeit and substandard food and beverages can be found on the shelves in shops around the world, and their increasing sale online is exacerbating the threat that food crime poses to the public.” He stressed that there is much more that can be done, calling for further efforts and better co-ordination at national, regional and international levels.
The investigations run at the national level brought to light the fact that criminals will fake any type of food and drink with no thought to the human cost, as long as they make a profit. In Lithuania, customs seized around 335 000 counterfeit sweets packaged in a way to attract the attention of one of the most vulnerable consumer groups – children. In Italy, the NAS Carabinieri seized over 150 000 litres of tampered poor quality sunflower oil made to look like extra virgin oil by adding chlorophyll and beta-carotene to the finished product.
A Europol mobile office was deployed in Hungary in March 2019 for this operation, to support the local National Tax and Customs and National Food Chain Safety. The OPSON programme has been running since 2011 and the number of participating countries has risen from ten to 78 over the years. The following case studies from this year’s operation highlight the progression and scope that the operations have achieved.
European case studies
Action 1: Targeting organic products
For the first time, this year’s operation, which involved 16 participating countries, looked at organic food products and the growing trend of products falsely claiming to be organic in order to be sold at higher prices. A targeted action led by the EU Commission with the support of Europol aimed to detect fraudulent practices pertaining to this field.
Over 90 000 tonnes of suspicious organic products were checked, after which nine individuals were arrested by the Spanish Guardia Civil.
The illicit practices uncovered included the use of unauthorised substances, the diversion of conventionally produced food to the organic market and the use of falsified documents to blur the traceability of the products.
Read more about this case here
Action 2: Targeting the threat from 2,4-Dinitrophenol
As part of OPSON VIII, ten EU Member States took part in an action led by the UK targeting the sale of 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP), a toxic chemical which is sold predominantly online as a fat burner. Consumption of DNP can have severe consequences for the health of consumers and has proven fatal in a number of instances.
A total of 23 seizures of DNP were made in the framework of this targeted action, through intelligence-led interventions at residential addresses, test purchases and through the detection of parcels by custom authorities. It is estimated that the equivalent of over 50 000 capsules of DNP have thus been prevented from entering the consumer market. Comprehensive online activity has also taken place and over 75 sales offerings have been removed.
Action 3: Targeting coffee
During OPSON VIII, a targeted action was run across 14 European countries in order to uncover possible fraudulent practices pertaining to coffee labelled as 100 per cent Arabica. With the support of Europol and the EU Commission, the focus was on the substitution of pure Arabica coffee (coffee variety of the highest quality) by cheaper lowland coffee (Robusta). Almost 400 coffee samples were analysed as part of this action.
For the first time in the history of OPSON, a laboratory co-operation was initiated and carried out within this targeted action. The results of the verification of the geographical origin are still ongoing and will be evaluated within the framework of the OPSON VIII follow-up. Moreover, a well-known company from the private sector supported this action by providing reference samples for authenticity testing as well as sector expertise.
Read the full story here
For further reading around this topic, read the interview with Natalie Wong and Monica Mena of UL, CRJ Key Network Partner, Women in the war on counterfeiting, CRJ 14:2
Image credit: Iryna Shatilova|123rf