The scale of the seizures demonstrate the extent to which fraudulent and illegal food has infiltrated the food chain, according to Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle.
“Counterfeit and substandard food and beverage can be found both on the physical market and sold online. The increased health risk for consumers is proportional to the reduced quality of raw materials used in the food processing system. Europol sees a recent development: low-quality products have infiltrated the food supply chain, an evolution possibly related to the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With more than 15 000 tonnes of illegal products seized, operation OPSON X illustrates the importance of cooperation between national authorities and the private sector in protecting consumers’ rights and the quality of the products we put on our tables,” she stressed.
The operation, the tenth of its kind, ran from December 2020 to June 2021 and involved law enforcement authorities from 72 countries, including 26 EU Member States.
The operation was supported by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), as well as national food regulatory authorities and private-sector partners.
Collectively enforcement authorities undertook around 68,000 checks, an effort that resulted in the seizure of illicit products with a value of about €53.8 million. The authorities issued 663 arrest warrants as a result of the investigations and estimated 42 criminal networks were disrupted.
“Removing such an enormous quantity of illegal and often dangerous products from the market is a concrete example of how international police cooperation is making the world a safer place. Food crime may not always seem like a top policing priority but operations like OPSON X demonstrate the massive profits these products generate, which can then fund other organized crime activities,” Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General, said.
The ‘main’ illegal products seized, in order of quantity, were:
- Alcoholic beverages
- Food supplements and additives
- Cereals, grains and derived products
- Fruits and vegetables
- Sugar and sweet products
- Meat and meat products
- Dairy products
- Poultry products
- Cooking oil
- Non-alcoholic beverages
- Coffee and tea
- Canned food
- Animal food
Adulteration of alcohol remains a ‘serious threat’
In a joint statement, Europol and INTERPOL detailed a number of case studies that highlighted how the organisations had worked alongside national authorities to combat food crime.
The Guardia Civil and customs authorities, supported by Europol, uncovered the adulteration of alcoholic beverages when it emerged a criminal network used colourants to change the quality and appearance of the beverages. This case led to 14 arrests; seizures included 47 660 litres of whiskey and 9,550 litres of alcohol for the manufacture of fraudulent products.
Meanwhile counterfeiting of alcoholic beverages was also uncovered by the Italian Carabinieri Corps, supported by the Swiss Police and Europol. This investigation resulted in five house arrest and three residence obligations.
In total, targeted action on alcohol and wine was carried out in: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Northern Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Scotland.
“Alcohol counterfeiting remains a serious threat to consumers while negatively affecting legitimate producers,” the authorities noted.
The results saw a total of 1.7 million litres of wine, beer and alcoholic beverages seized. Most infringements related to wine and vodka.
Fake honey 'endangering' beekeeping
Europol noted ‘fake honey’ has been in circulation since the 1970s when high-fructose corn syrup became widely available. To increase volumes and illegal profits, criminals add much cheaper corn syrup and sugarcane to genuine honey.
“This activity affects the market, which becomes inundated with counterfeits that are priced much lower than the genuine product. Consequently, beekeepers are forced to gradually lower the prices of genuine products. This can endanger their activities, leading them to decrease production as well as the bee populations that they maintain,” the criminal investigation body explained.
Targeted action on honey was carried out in: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (Scotland) and the United States.
Europol requested that national authorities perform checks on illegal products that could be detected in the supply chain. Dedicated food safety authorities performed checks on the internal markets, including livestock direct sales, collection and processing of bee products, wholesale trades, distributors, deposits, street markets, retail trades and productions of ready-to-eat foods. The authorities mainly checked the analytical detection of sugar syrup and corn syrup.
Four hundred and ninety-five of these checks were carried out, with a 7% detection rate for non-compliant products. More than 51,000 of fraudulently treated honey was detected.
Illegal horse meat remains a concern
Operation OPSON IX saw the launch of a dedicated project to support national authorities in combating the sale of illegal horse meat. This action was led by Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands and supported by DG SANTE.
Targeted action on horse passports and horse meat took place in Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain.
The follow-up activities during OPSON X led to the opening of three new investigations in EU countries.