Latest food fraud crackdown results in more than 400 arrests

The ninth instalment of Operation Opson has seized a massive 12,000 tonnes of illegal and potentially hazardous food products worth an estimated €28m.

The clampdown – which ran from December 2019 to June 2020 - led to the dismantling of 19 organised crime groups involved in food fraud and the arrests of 406 suspects, according to Europol and Interpol, which helped organise the operation.

The haul is a reduction on the illicit products seized in the 2019 operation, both in numbers and value terms. Last year, 16,000 tonnes of fraudulent foods worth more than €100m were seized, although it seems likely that the coronavirus crisis had an impact on both the illicit trade and the enforcement operation.

That said, Europol notes that Operation Opson IX has revealed “a new disturbing trend to address: the infiltration of low-quality products into the supply chain, a development possibly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That included 320 tonnes of smuggled or substandard dairy products that were discovered in Bulgaria, Italy, France, Greece, Portugal and Switzerland, including rotten milk and cheese which posed a threat to consumer health.

A Bulgarian investigation into an unregistered warehouse revealed seven samples of cheese tested positive for starch – an adulterant used as a bulking agent – and the bacteria Escherichia coli. The authorities seized 3.6 tonnes of unsafe dairy products, which were supposed to be processed into melted cheese.

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With more than 5,000 tonnes seized, animal food was the most seized product, followed by alcoholic beverages (more than 2,000 tonnes), cereals, grains and derived products, coffee and tea and condiments.

There were also sizeable seizures of olive oil and illegal horse meat, despite the heightened level of attention to the horsemeat trade in the wake of the 2013 adulteration scandal.

Condiments also highly counterfeited

There was also large amounts of saffron were seized – 90kg in Spain and 7kg in Belgium with an estimated value of more than €306,000, says Europol. Meanwhile, the US authorities also seized 147kg of raw apricot kernel seeds being touted as a cure for cancer.

“As countries around the world continue their efforts to contain COVID-19, the criminal networks distributing these potentially dangerous products show only their determination to make a profit,” commented Jürgen Stock, Interpol’s secretary general.

“The scale and variety of food and drink seized during this operation serves as a reminder for members of the public to be vigilant about what they buy, and the need for continued vigilance and action by law enforcement,” he added.

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