Large quantities of fraudulent foods, including horse meat, honey and alcohol, have been removed from European supply chains, Europol and Interpol have revealed
Low-quality goods were a prime concern this year, said the group, which believes Covid-related disruptions may have helped more illegal products enter supply chains.
Operation OPSON targets counterfeit and substandard foods and beverages, including goods contaminated with ingredients that are undeclared, unfit for human consumption or of low-quality, or which are falsely labelled.
This year’s OPSON X ran from December 2020 to June 2021 and involved law enforcement authorities from 72 countries, including 26 EU Member States and the UK.
The programme saw the seizure of 15,451 tonnes of illicit products with a value of €53.8m.
Alcohol topped the list of counterfeit products seized by volume, as tests revealed 1.7m litres worth of fake alcoholic drinks.
The majority were wine and vodka products though they also removed over 47,000 litres of whisky and other products containing colourants to enhance their appearance and seem higher quality.
Honey was another targeted food and 495 checks on honey throughout the supply chain found that 51,000kg (7%) of products tested had been fraudulently tainted with high-fructose corn syrup. This cheap syrup is used to dilute honey to increase volumes and illegal profits.
Action was also taken against the illegal sale of horse meat in Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain.
While they did not confirm whether evidence of illegal horse meat had been found in supply chains, Europol said operation OPSON X had led to the opening of three new investigations in EU countries on this.
Horse meat is commonly sold for human consumption in several European countries, including Belgium, Spain and France, but meats and products containing it must be correctly labelled to indicate this.
In 2013, a wider horse meat scandal engulfed countries including the UK after several food products advertised as beef were found to contain undeclared horse meat.
Police in Spain and Portugal, supported by Europol, also found trade in molluscs which are unfit for human consumption, leading to eight arrests and seizures worth €120,000.
Commonly eaten bivalves include mussels, clams and oysters.
Catherine De Bolle, Europol executive director, said Europol has recognised a new trend in supply chains.
“Low-quality products have infiltrated the food supply chain, an evolution possibly related to the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The organisation reinforced the need for vigilance, and said: “This activity affects the market, which becomes inundated with counterfeits that are priced much lower than the genuine product”.
Therefore farmers and manufacturers are forced to drop their prices to compete, which can risk quality and standards. It also warned that many subpar products are sold online, increasing risk of exposure to contaminated or harmful ingredients, as well as to businesses and reputation.
“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.”
Top 10 illegal products seized by OPSON X, by quantity:
- Alcoholic drinks
- Food supplements and additives
- Cereals and grains
- Fruits and vegetables
- Sugar and sweet products
- Meat and meat products