More than $40 million worth of potentially dangerous fake food and drink has been seized in the latest multinational law enforcement action – Operation Opson, which ended in June. The operation also saw the disruption of 19 organized crime groups and the arrest of 407 individuals worldwide.
Counterfeit and substandard food and beverages can be found on the shelves in shops around the world. The increasing online sale of such potentially dangerous products poses a significant threat to public health.
Among the items discovered were dairy products contaminated with bacteria, meat from illegally slaughtered animals and food products falsely labelled as medicinal cures. For example, U.S. authorities seized 147kg of raw apricot kernel seeds sold as a cure for cancer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As in past operations, counterfeit and adulterated alcohol continued to be a global concern. More than $20 million worth of illicit alcoholic beverages were taken out of circulation, including 5,000 litres of vodka smuggled in a trailer in Norway.
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.