Interpol, Europol dismantle food & drink fraud networks

Thousands of tons of fake and sub-standard food and drink have been seized in 47 countries around the world as part of an INTERPOL-Europol coordinated operation.

Operation Opson IV, conducted during December 2014 and January 2015, resulted in the seizure of more than 2,500 tons of counterfeit and illicit food, including mozzarella, strawberries, eggs, cooking oil and dried fruit.

Involving police, customs, national food regulatory bodies and partners from the private sector, checks were carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and industrial estates.

Chris Vansteenkiste, head of Europol’s Focal Point Copy who coordinated the activities in Europe, commented that “This year again, the results from Opson clearly reflect the threat that food fraud represents, as it affects all types of products and all regions of the world”.

The success of Operation Opson IV clearly shows cooperation at both national and international levels is a must if countries and governments really want to disrupt the criminal gangs involved in the food fraud business.

As said before, the operation has covered some 47 different countries in most of the world’s regions, developed and under-developed as well: Italian officials seized 31 tons of seafood being sold as fresh but which had been frozen before being doused with a chemical substance containing citric acid, phosphate and hydrogen peroxide to make the catch appear freshly caught. In South Sudan an unlicensed water bottling plant was shut down, and Egyptian authorities seized 35 tons of fake butter and dismantled a factory producing fake tea.

Of the nearly 275,000 liters of drinks recovered across all regions, counterfeit alcohol was among the most seized product. In the UK, a plant making fake brand-name vodka was raided. Officers discovered more than 20,000 empty bottles ready for filling, hundreds of empty five-liter antifreeze containers which had been used to make the counterfeit alcohol, as well as a reverse osmosis unit used to remove the chemical’s colour and smell.

In Uganda, police seized bottles of fake whisky, and in Rwanda officers raided a shop selling fake beer where genuine bottles which had been previously collected were re-filled for sale with a locally brewed product.

“Fake and sub-standard food and drink pose a real threat to health and safety. People are at serious risk and in some cases dying because of the greed of criminals whose sole concern is to make money,” said Michael Ellis, head of INTERPOL’s Trafficking in Illicit Goods and Counterfeiting unit which coordinated activities between the world police body’s participating countries across the globe. “Through this operation, thousands of tons of potentially hazardous food and drink have been taken out of circulation.”

An illegal slaughterhouse was shut down in Hungary, where officials also seized cars which had been modified to incorporate hidden compartments to smuggle fake alcohol. An investigation is ongoing in Norway following the seizure of counterfeit water bottles. The US Food and Drugs Administration focused efforts on dietary supplements sent by mail with inspections at Los Angeles Airport resulting in the seizure of illicit substances.

Some 85 tons of meat illegally imported into Thailand without testing to ensure they complied with health and safety regulations were destroyed, and police also dismantled a criminal network producing fake whisky and seized nearly 20,000 liters of the counterfeit alcohol.

Authorities in Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay focused their efforts at border control points. In addition to attempting to evade paying duties, goods are often transported, packaged or stored in conditions which may pose health risks to consumers.

Operation Opson IV resulted in a number of arrests across the globe and investigations are continuing. Among the aims of the operation is to identify and disrupt the organized crime networks behind the trafficking in fake goods; enhance cooperation between the involved law enforcement and regulatory authorities; and to raise public awareness of the dangers posed by fake and sub-standard food and drink.


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