The Greek finance ministry’s financial and economic crimes unit confiscated close to 1300 litres of smuggled alcohol in March as part of a Europol-Interpol operation targeting counterfeit and substandard food and drink, as well as the organised crime networks behind this illicit trade.
EU police agency Europol said that the Greek unit had discovered two illicit storage sites of alcohol.
The investigating team placed the premises under surveillance and started their action by checking delivery vehicles entering the site. All products were smuggled mostly from Bulgaria, thus evading excise duties. Almost 1300 litres of smuggled alcohol (vodka and whisky) was seized and five people were arrested.
The European police agency announced on April 25 details about Operation Opson VI, the Europol-Interpol operation, which across the 61 participating countries, including 21 EU countries, resulted in the seizure of 9800 tons, more than 26.4 million litres and 13 million units/items worth an estimated 230 million euro of potentially harmful food and beverages ranging from everyday products such as alcohol, mineral water, seasoning cubes, seafood and olive oil, to luxury goods such as caviar.
This was the sixth time the Opson operation took place. Each participating country implemented a national operational phase between December 1 2016 to March 31 2017, involving police, customs, national food regulatory bodies and partners from the private sector.
More than 50 000 checks were carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and industrial estates, Europol said.
“OPSON VI confirmed the threat that food fraud represents, as it affects all types of products and all regions of the world. In addition we saw some new trends such as counterfeit mineral water,” said Chris Vansteenkiste, head of Europol’s Intellectual Property Crime Coordinated Coalition – IPC3.
“Once again the good cooperation on a European and global level was paramount to disrupt the criminal gangs behind the illicit trade in counterfeit and unregulated food and drink,” Vansteenkiste said.
“This operation has once again shown that criminals will fake any type of food and drink with no thought to the human cost as long as they make a profit. While thousands of counterfeit goods have been taken out of circulation, we continue to encourage the public to remain vigilant about the products they buy,” said Françoise Dorcier, Coordinator of INTERPOL’s Illicit Goods and Global Health Programme.
The Europol statement gave a number of examples of the operation in various countries.
The German OPSON VI operation focused on undeclared peanuts, cashew nuts and almonds in hazelnut products imported to Germany. Germany identified products which could be harmful for allergy sufferers.
When 1300kg of roasted chopped hazelnuts were checked, German authorities detected eight per cent of admixed peanuts. In 500kg of hazelnut paste, up to 45 per cent of mixed cashew nuts were detected. In another hazelnut paste, 27 per cent of admixed almonds could be determined. Due to the fact that these products were not labeled regarding the content of allergenic substances a potential health risk for allergy sufferers was given and the products were withdrawn from the market.
French Customs seized more than 179 000 seasoning cubes illegally bearing a famous trademark.
The products were discovered during the search of a wholesaler premises, located in the suburban area of Paris. Customs initiated the case upon intelligence received from the industry. The company owner of the brand confirmed the products were counterfeit. Goods were quickly disposed according to the simplified destruction procedure. Investigations are ongoing to identify origin, route and final destination of the items.
The Portuguese Food Safety and Economic Authority (ASAE) raided a factory in the area of Porto which resulted in the finding of processed fish manufactured without respect of safety rules. This outcome was achieved after several weeks of investigation and surveillance work. The plant was targeted as its licence to process food had been already withdrawn.
ASAE uncovered illicit activities consisting in repacking almost expired sardines in tomato sauce, regardless of traceability and hygienic rules. Products were intended for exportation and intra EU deliveries. The business has been closed immediately after the action day. All material found in the premises was seized, namely 311 000 cans, 16 jars of tomato sauce, 9900 packing boxes, 24 730 labels and 700kg of salt.
Italian Carabinieri NAS in cooperation with the Ministry of Health seized more than 266 000 litres of mineral water (almost 32 000 bottles) in the area of Lazio. Bottles imitated a registered trademark of mineral water. Labels and shapes of the plastic containers were similar to the genuine products. Investigations revealed that the water originated from the same source. However, no market authorization had been granted and bottling was done without regards of health and safety regulations. One person was arrested.
In Tuscany, Italian Carabinieri dismantled an organised crime group involved in the production and distribution of fake wine, sold as famous and protected red wine.
The investigation was coordinated by the antimafia regional unit of Florence. In total, 13 people have been identified and 3 of them arrested.
In the crime group, each individual was in charge of specific tasks regarding production and distribution of the bottles. Pure alcohol was added to low quality wine used as raw material to increase the volume of alcohol.
Labels, including fake official labels of protected geographical indications were placed on the bottles at the final stage of production. These illicit activities took place in a farm located in the Tuscan countryside. The property has been seized. Wine had been sold on the Italian market and abroad.
(Photo: Zsuzsanna Kilian)