Authorities have dismantled an organized crime group trading in adulterated olive oil in Germany and Italy.

The operation named “Oro Giallo” — Yellow gold in English — involving Europol, Eurojust, the NAS Carabinieri from Italy, the Italian public prosecution office of Foggia, and the tribunal of Darmstadt in Germany, led to the arrest of 24 people and seizure of 150,000 liters of fake olive oil estimated to have a commercial value of €1.2 million ($1.34 million).

Two suspects of Italian origin were arrested in Germany via European arrest warrants. Ten of the detained are under house arrest.

Europol officials said activities at an oil mill in Cerignola, Italy were carried out in unsanitary conditions.

The gang made up to €8 million ($9 million) annually in profit by modifying the color of low quality oils to sell them on the Italian and German markets as extra virgin olive oil. The group also tampered with low quality sunflower oil.

Investigators inspect equipment suspected of being used in the scheme.

Investigations in Foggia started in 2015 following an alert by the Italian Ministry of Health on the sale of counterfeit olive oil and a request by the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL). Enquiries were opened and followed by the Italian Carabinieri for Health Safety (NAS) and German police forces.

Olive oil from Apulia in Southern Italy was mixed with various substances, such as chlorophyll, beta-carotene and soya oil, to modify its color. The product was then distributed to the German market as extra virgin olive oil, mainly to restaurants and shops in Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin, as well as restaurants and supermarkets mainly in Northern Italy.

The organized crime group was sending 23,000 liters of adulterated oil to Germany every 15 days. They bought, on a yearly basis, more than 1 million liters of oil to be adulterated. This oil was purchased at a price of around €1.20 ($1.34) and sold, once adulterated, at a street value of €10 to €15 ($11.2 to $16.8).

While some of the workers were responsible for production and packaging of the product in 1 liter glass bottles or 5 liter cans, others delivered the fake oil in bulk in trucks every two weeks. Members of the crime group are suspected of illegal trading, participation in a criminal organization, adulteration of food products, and other offences.

Once in Germany, the counterfeit product was stored in logistics companies waiting to be distributed into commerce. In some instances, the fake olive oil totally replaced the genuine oil. A total of 20 house searches were carried out in Italy and Germany and 150,000 liters of fake olive oil seized at different locations, including six trucks transporting 23,000 liters each to Germany.

German buyers are not regarded as members of the organized crime group, as they were not part of its structure and are only suspected of handling fraudulently produced goods.

The work was carried out within the international Operation Opson. In March 2019, a briefing was held at Europol with Italian and German authorities. Eurojust held three coordination meetings to discuss prosecutorial strategies and identify the competent authority in each member state. Europol was involved at an early stage, participating in the first meeting in 2016.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)