Authorities in Spain and Portugal have uncovered what they are calling a criminal network involving contaminated clams that sickened up to 30 people.

The investigation involved the Portuguese Economic and Food Safety Authority (ASAE), Food Fraud Network of the European Commission and was led by the Spanish SEPRONA (Guardia Civil’s nature and environment division) and coordinated by Europol.

Illegal clams were harvested in Portugal and moved to Spain for the most lucrative seasons of summer and end-of-year holidays. After a brief clean up, contaminated clams were sold in markets and restaurants. Washing them got rid of the bacteria such as E. coli, but not viruses including norovirus genogroup I and II and Hepatitis A.

Photo courtesy of Europol

The large organized crime network involving poachers, intermediaries and distribution companies were responsible for the food poisoning of at least 27 individuals in Spain.

Trafficking of contaminated clams
SEPRONA began operation TXUSPAS last year following the poisoning of 27 people in different restaurants in Cantabria and Asturias. Investigations found illegal fishing in Portugal and two routes of entry into Spain with final destination being Huelva and Cantabria.

The operation led to 43 arrests – 39 from Spain and four from Portugal, the seizure of 38.5 tons of clams worth €350,000 ($388,000) and €80,000 ($89,000) in cash, and the location of hideouts where clams caught in Portugal were stored. Six searches and seven inspections took place resulting in 11 companies under investigation in relation to illegal activities.

The criminal network was active for at least a year earning up to €9 million ($9.9 million) with more than 1,000 tons of illegally caught clams which were then seized by the 11 Spanish companies being investigated. The network was helped by the high demand of the hospitality sector in coastal areas.

Illegally caught clams were mixed with legally caught clams to prevent traceability and the origin being determined. False documents were also used to mask the clam’s real origin.

Local agencies and the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) monitor shellfish extraction zones, issuing temporary or permanent prohibitions on such activities if levels of a particular agent reach risk levels.

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