Europol targets organised crime in second phase of food fraud crackdown

By Mark Astley

- Last updated on GMT

Italian police officers carrying out checks during Operation Opson in 2011. (Photo copyright: Europol)
Italian police officers carrying out checks during Operation Opson in 2011. (Photo copyright: Europol)

Related tags: European union

Europol, Europe’s central law enforcement agency, plans to continue its fight against the growing presence of organised crime in areas of food through a repeat of last November’s Europe-wide crackdown on food crime - Operation Opson.

Europol project manager Chris Vansteenkiste told FoodQualityNews.com that the agency intends to repeat the efforts of 2011 by coordinating with Interpol to organised food checks across Europe and stem the organised criminal gangs that have driven an increase in food crimes.

In November 2011, police, customs officials, national food standards authorities and figures from the private sector, carried out checks at airports, seaports, shops and market across 10 European countries – seizing hundreds of tonnes of counterfeit and substandard food and drink.

While admitting that food crime and the influence of organised criminals was an increasing problem in Europe, the police authority added that the situation is unlikely to get as bad as in China.

Illicit trade

“We are not worried about this food crime problem becoming as bad as in China, but this is an issue - something we need to be aware of,”​ said Vansteenkiste.

“We need to be vigilant. Criminal groups will make profits by any means necessary. This illicit trade exists and needs to be fought against.”

“It is always the same story – money. And at the moment it seems that there is more money in the food trade than some others.”

“In this area the consumer is at risk – we need to be particularly aware of that threat.”

To combat the increased risk, Europol intends to repeat its coordination with Interpol again to organise the second phase of Operation Opson, which brought together food safety and law authorities from across the European Union (EU).

The second phase of Operation Opson is likely to take place at the end of the year.

Operation Opson

“The main objections of the operation were to raise awareness of food crime and make food safety agencies and law agencies cooperate,”​ said Vansteenkiste.

According to Europol, the initial operation effectively disrupted the organised criminal gangs that have become involved in this area.

More than 12,000 bottles of substandard wine worth €300,000, 13,000 bottles of substandard olive oil, 30 tonnes of fake tomato sauce and around 77,000kg of counterfeit cheese were among the seized products.

“Obviously in terms of counterfeit foods, the majority of victims are in the most valuable intellectually-geographic areas,”​ he added.

"These areas, with very famous cheese or alcohol for example, are most under threat from these organised criminal gangs and counterfeiters."

High profits, little risk

In February, FoodQualityNews.com reported on the European Commission’s (EC) aim of improving communication between European Union (EU) member states and driving the region’s fight against food crime.

The European targets, which were detailed at the Commission’s Conference on Combatting Food Crime, “should lead to strengthened coordination between all actors and the identification and development of new strategies for combatting food-related crime.”

The increased presence of organised crime in the area of food is a moderately new“phenomenon”,which has been partly attributed to a lack of severe sanctions against such practices.

“It’s true that the penalties for these types of crime are very low. Criminal organisations are taking advantage of these opportunities because there are high profits available with little risk,”​ Vansteenkiste added.

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