More than 80,000 kilograms of illicit Bluefin tuna has been seized in Spain and several cases of food poisoning reported due to fish being stored in unsanitary conditions.

Eight cases were detected after eating the tuna due to the degradation of proteins from the unhygienic conditions in which it was stored. Scombroid food poisoning can occur from eating fish high in histamine after incorrect storage.

Europol coordinated Operation Tarantelo, run by the Spanish Guardia Civil with the support of French, Italian, Maltese and Portuguese authorities, which saw 79 individuals arrested.

The agency said the risks for consumer health were due to the unsanitary conditions in which fish was kept, transported and stored. Sometimes it was hidden underwater after fishing, awaiting transportation. The supply chain was interrupted several times and the cold chain is broken, which made tuna go off and increased the risk of food poisoning for consumers.

A Europol spokesman told Food Safety News that eight cases of food poisoning after eating the tuna related to the operation in Spain had been detected so far as a consequence of the illegal activity.

“Due to the lack of proper hygiene conditions, the tuna has to be immediately frozen at -18 Celsius but for long-term preservation, the temperature arrives to –60 Celsius, the tuna generates histamines and consequently there exists a concrete risk for human health,” he said.

“Sometimes they killed some specimens and declared half of them. The others were maintained under water for some hours and consequently contaminated with histamines. Other times the specimens were killed and transported by trucks from Italy to Spain after more than 10 days without proper conditions.”

Investigations began when the Spanish Guardia Civil became aware of irregularities relating to Bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean Sea. They revealed fish was being traded illegally in Spain but imported into the country through French harbors, after being caught in Italian and Maltese waters.

While fish caught in Maltese waters were illegally imported using documents from legal fishing and authorized farms, those caught in Italian waters arrived in Spain without documents or inspections. There were also a few unauthorized catches in Spanish waters with illegally fished Bluefin tuna transported in false bottoms under the deck of a vessel.

In Italy, experts in food health and safety, Carabinieri NAS, carried out 23 inspections and identified 45 suspects, reported one individual and seized 541 kg of tuna as well as documents. The Portuguese Food Safety and Economic Authority (ASAE) did one inspection including several administrative reports and examined documents.

Europol officials said the illegal Bluefin tuna market was up to 2.5 million kg a year and it is estimated criminals earn at least €5 profit per kg making total profits reach €12.5 million ($14.4 million). This trade volume is double that of the legal trade which is estimated to be 1.25 million kg.

In August this year, Spanish authorities seized 45 tons of illegally treated tuna fish from four provinces. In this case, frozen tuna for canning had been treated with substances that enhance the color and then sent to market to be sold as fresh.

Last year, a histamine outbreak linked to tuna sickened hundreds in Spain, Italy, France, Croatia, and Denmark. A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessment did not find one single event at a specific point in the supply chain that was the origin of all clusters of cases but said it was likely temperature abuse during post-harvest chilling, storage and/or processing played a role.

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