Food fraud in times of COVID-19

22 de julio de 2020
Thousands of tonnes of fake food and drink seized during Operation Opson IX

LYON, France – More than USD 40 million worth of potentially dangerous fake food and drink was seized in the latest Operation Opson, which also saw the disruption of 19 organized crime groups and the arrest of 407 individuals worldwide.
 
Among the items discovered were dairy products contaminated with bacteria, meat from illegally slaughtered animals and food products falsely labelled as medicinal cures.
 
In Bulgaria, an investigation by the police and Food Safety Agency into an unregistered warehouse uncovered cheese which tested positive for E.coli bacteria. Some 3.6 tonnes of unsafe dairy products set to be processed into cheese were seized and destroyed.

Checks were carried out to identify illicit alcohol in Eswatini.
Checks were carried out to identify illicit alcohol in Eswatini.

Operation Opson IX, coordinated by INTERPOL and Europol, saw more than 12,000 tonnes of illegal and potentially harmful items recovered from shops, markets and during transport checks. Police, customs, national food regulatory authorities and private sector partners in 77 countries took part in the operation which ran from December 2019 through June 2020.
 
During checks conducted in Jordan, authorities seized some 2,000 litres of expired energy drinks and 4,500 litres of expired soda. More than 7 tonnes of rotten milk and cheese were also seized in the country.

COVID-19 pandemic links

Highlighting the criminal links between different types of counterfeit items, authorities also discovered thousands of fake medical products, including disinfectants and some 17,000 false COVID-19 testing kits.
 
In fact, the operation demonstrated how global distribution routes, both legal and illegal, have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Seizures of expired food items or where the expiry dates had been altered were significantly higher than during previous Opson operations – possibly a sign of criminals capitalizing on the disruption of food supply chains caused by national lockdowns.

In South Africa, illicit beverages, seafood and condiments were discovered.
In South Africa, illicit beverages, seafood and condiments were discovered.

“As countries around the world continue their efforts to contain COVID-19, the criminal networks distributing these potentially dangerous products show only their determination to make a profit,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
 
“The scale and variety of food and drink seized during this operation serves as a reminder for members of the public to be vigilant about what they buy, and the need for continued vigilance and action by law enforcement,” added the INTERPOL Chief.
 
Other frauds connected to the pandemic were discovered, including a shipment of seafood seized in South Africa and originating from Asia which was falsely declared as personal protective equipment.

Adulterated alcohol and illegal meat

As in past operations, counterfeit and adulterated alcohol continued to be a global concern. More than USD 20 million worth of illicit alcoholic beverages were taken out of circulation, including 5,000 litres of vodka smuggled in a trailer in Norway.
 
Catherine De Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director, highlighted that: “In times of crises, criminals always look for new ways to abuse consumers and increase their illegal profit to the harm of public safety. Counterfeit and substandard food is not only deceitful to consumers but can also pose a significant threat to their health. Our annual Operation Opson shows in its ninth year that cooperation between law enforcement, regulatory authorities and the private sector is crucial to protect both consumers and businesses from the harm criminals try to put on our plates.”

At more than 5,000 tonnes, animal products were the top seizures during this year’s Opson operation. A new trend discovered in Europe was the falsification of horse ‘passports’: in one case, horses transported into Italy using fake documents claiming they were to take place in sports competitions were in fact sent to a slaughterhouse.
 
In addition to the fake food and drink, other illicit products recovered included cosmetics, footwear, clothing, handbags, car parts, electronics, tobacco and medicines, worth an estimated USD 3.1 million.