More than $117 million worth of potentially dangerous food and drink has been seized in an operation coordinated by Interpol and Europol.

Operation Opson VIII found tampered expiration dates on cheese and chicken, controlled medicines added to drinks, and meat stored in unsanitary conditions.

Police, customs, national food authorities and the private sector in 78 countries took part in the five-month operation from December 2018 to April 2019.

Some 16,000 tons and 33 million liters of fake food and drink was seized. This compares to more than 3,620 tons and 9.7 million liters confiscated in 67 countries during four months in 2018. Europol and Interpol have been running the operation since 2011.

This year, more than 18.7 million items were recovered in shops, markets and during transport checks. A total of 672 people have been arrested with investigations ongoing in many countries.

Issues with alcohol, apples and honey
Illicit alcohol was the most seized item, totaling more than 33,000 metric tons, followed by cereals, grains and condiments.

Agents found this improperly stored palm sugar.

Authorities in Zimbabwe seized nearly 14,000 liters of soft drinks that contained high levels of the active ingredient in erectile dysfunction medication.

Raids based on intelligence led to the dismantling of counterfeit honey production sites in Eritrea.

In Belarus, more than 60 tons of apples being transported with forged documentation were confiscated.

Police in Russia shut down an illicit vodka production site, seizing 4,200 liters of counterfeit alcohol and an additional 6,000 empty bottles. In South Africa three people were arrested after alcohol for export was repackaged and sold nationally to avoid taxes.

“Counterfeit and substandard food and beverages can be found on the shelves in shops around the world, and their increasing sale online is exacerbating the threat that food crime poses to the public,” said Paul Stanfield, Interpol’s director of organized and emerging crime.

“Operation Opson VIII saw a substantial amount of counterfeit food and drink taken out of circulation, but there is much more that can be done. Interpol calls for further efforts and better coordination at the national, regional and international levels in order to stem this tide which endangers the health of consumers worldwide.”

Sweets, oil and organic products targeted
In Lithuania, customs seized some 335,000 counterfeit sweets packaged to attract the attention of children, one of the most vulnerable consumer groups.

In Italy, the NAS Carabinieri seized 150,000 liters of tampered poor quality sunflower oil made to look like extra virgin oil by adding chlorophyll and beta-carotene.

Operation Opson VIII was the first to look at organic food and the growing number of products, which do not meet national or regional standards, falsely claiming to be organic to be sold at higher prices. Action led by the EU Commission with support of Europol across 16 EU member states found more than 90,000 tons of suspicious organic products. Nine people were arrested by the Spanish Guardia Civil (SEPRONA).

Illicit practices involving the false organic food included use of unauthorized substances, diversion of conventionally produced food to the organic market, and use of falsified documents to blur traceability of the products.

Jari Liukku, head of Europol’s European Serious and Organized Crime Centre, said the operation shows criminals will take advantage of any opportunity to make a profit.

“The volume of the seizures confirms that food fraud affects all types of products, and all regions of the world. It is hurting the consumers’ wallets: in the best of cases, food fraud is the deception of consumers, whereby they pay for something they do not get, but in the worst cases, food fraud can result in serious harm to the public’s health,” he said.

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