Dubbed Operation Opson, the raids took place between November 2015 and February 2016 in shops, markets, airports and industrial estates in 57 different countries, and resulted in a number of arrests.
While there is currently no EU definition of the term 'food fraud', common practices range from adulteration, counterfeiting, substitution and the deliberate mislabelling of goods. Europol and Interpol officers found examples of all these during Opson.
Fake chocolate, sweets and soft drinks aimed at children were discovered by police authorities in Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and Romania. A spokesperson for Europol said it was against policy to reveal the names of the counterfeited brands but confirmed the products bore trademarks without permission of the right holders.
British authorities discovered nearly 10,000 litres of fake or adulterated alcohol, including wine, whiskey and vodka, while in France 11 kilos of locusts and 20 kilos of caterpillars were seized and destroyed. Customs officers at Zaventen airport in Belgium intercepted several kilos of monkey meat.
Public health was placed in serious danger by an Australian shipment of peanuts that were packaged and labelled as pine nuts while in Indonesia food fraudsters were caught using formalin – a diluted solution of known carcinogen formaldehyde that is prohibited as a food additive – to preserve chicken intestines.
A 2014 report from the University of Portsmouth estimated that food fraud costs manufacturers a massive £11.2bn (€14.2bn) a year in the UK alone - or 85% of their total profits.
Murky food chains
According to Chris Vansteenkiste of Europol’s intellectual property crime team, the global nature of the food chain as well as rising food prices tempt criminals to sell counterfeit and substandard food which can pose health risks to unsuspecting consumers.
“This year again, the results from Opson clearly reflect the threat that food fraud represents, as food adulterations cut across all kinds of categories and from all regions of the world. Sharing knowledge in one market may prevent food fraud in another and ultimately helps protect public health and safety worldwide,” he added.
As well as breaking up criminal counterfeiter networks, the aim of Opson is to strengthen links between law enforcement agencies and food safety authorities. Yet the food industry itself also has a role to play.
Private partners including Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé, Unilever, Ferrero and Danone collaborated in the crackdown, a spokesperson for Europol told FoodNavigator, while manufacturers of alcoholic beverages, such as the Association of Champagne producers, Scotch Whisky Association and Tequila Regulatory Council, also took part.
These private partners provided intelligence and risk assessment on their products before the operation began, took part in training sessions for the law enforcement services and provided expertise in legal proceedings when required.
Europol asked firms producing commonly counterfeited products, such as dairy or fish, to take part.
“Their involvement was made on a voluntary basis, and did not imply any specific action from the law enforcement agencies involved in Opson regarding their brands or products. [We] are willing to develop partnerships with private partners of the food industry in order to reinforce the cooperation and the exchange of operational information,” said the spokesperson.
Opson is an annual food fraud operation, now in its fifth year, that involves food safety authorities from 57 participating countries.
Investigations are continuing.