Alcohol tops list of €230m fake food and drink seizures

A joint Europol-Interpol anti-counterfeit operation of more than 50,000 checks and raids has resulted in the seizure of €230m-worth of fake food and beverage products.

Called Operation OPSON VI, the extensive global crackdown on the illicit trade and criminal networks involved 61 countries and saw 9,800 tonnes, more than 26.4 million litres and 13 million items of dodgy food and drink products seized from stores, markets, seaports and industrial estates.

The products ranged from bogus and substandard alcohol, mineral water and seasoning cubes to fraudulent seafood, olive oil and caviar.

This is the sixth year the co-ordinated effort has been carried out. Last year, the operation seized nearly 1.5 million litres and more than 11,000 tonnes of products.

"OPSON VI confirmed the threat that food fraud represents, as it affects all types of products and all regions of the world," said Chris Vansteenkiste, head of Europol's Intellectual Property Crime Coordinated Coalition (IPC3). "Once again the good cooperation on a European and global level was paramount to disrupt the criminal gangs behind the illicit trade in counterfeit and unregulated food and drink."

The operation highlighted new counterfeit food trends such as mineral water, Vansteenkiste said. More than 266,000 litres (almost 32,000 bottles) of mineral water were seized in the Lazio area in Italy that had imitated trademarks and was bottled in containers with shape and labels similar to the genuine products. While investigations revealed the source of the water was the same as the authentic products, the bottling contravened health and safety regulations and was done with no market authorisation.

The operation also revealed a canned fish EU export racket in Portugal, where almost expired sardines in tomato sauce were being repackaged, flaunting both traceability and hygiene rules. The targeted factory in Porto was under surveillance for several weeks after authorities became aware that its licence to process food had already been withdrawn. During a raid, more than 310,000 cans, 16 jars of tomato sauce, 9,900 packing boxes, 24,730 labels and 700kgs of salt were seized.

Meanwhile, in Spain, four people were arrested for their part in a company selling clams "unfit for human consumption". More than 500kgs of clams were seized, which had not been treated for purification and had false and misleading labels.

An Italian organised crime group involved in the production and distribution of fake luxury wine was also dismantled as part of OPSON VI, with the arrest of three people. Authorities found that pure alcohol was added to low quality wine to increase the alcohol volume, while labels, including fake official labels of protected geographical indications, were placed on the bottles, which were then sold on the Italian market and abroad.

Other food fraud revealed in the operation included the seizure of 179,000 counterfeit cubes of food seasoning in France, and the identification of falsified and adulterated virgin olive oil sold in Danish supermarkets. Meanwhile, German authorities found a number of nut products imported into the country were mislabelled, containing instead mixtures of nuts, which posed a health risk for allergy sufferers, and were promptly pulled from the market.

"This operation has once again shown that criminals will fake any type of food and drink with no thought to the human cost as long as they make a profit," said Francoise Dorcier, coordinator of Interpol's Illicit Goods and Global Health Programme. "Whilst thousands of counterfeit goods have been taken out of circulation, we continue to encourage the public to remain vigilant about the products they buy."

OPSON VI ran between 1 December 2016 and 31 March 2017, with 61 countries involved, of which 21 were EU Member States.

This was an increase on last year's operation when 57 countries were involved. That crackdown revealed that condiments such as vegetable oil, spices and sauces were the most faked and illicitly traded food products accounting for 66% of all seizures in the operation.

A final and detailed report on the OPSON VI operation will be published over the coming months.

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