The European Commission has asked member states to look into the suspected illegal trade of bivalve mollusks that has caused foodborne outbreaks.
At a Food Fraud Network meeting in May, the Commission said it was aware of irregularities in the movement of bivalve mollusks and called on countries concerned to investigate.
An investigation into the trafficking of clams in December 2019 linked it to the food poisoning of at least 27 people in Spain who had consumed some suspected of having been collected in non-authorized harvested areas in Portugal. People fell sick in different restaurants in Cantabria and Asturias.
Similar suspicions identified to those in Portugal and Spain
Operation TXUSPAS, coordinated by Europol, led to 43 arrests — 39 from Spain and four from Portugal — and seizure of 38.5 tons of clams worth €350,000 ($388,000) and €80,000 ($89,000) in cash. Six searches and seven inspections resulted in 11 companies being investigated.
It involved the Portuguese Economic and Food Safety Authority (ASAE), the Food Fraud Network of DG SANTE and was led by the Spanish SEPRONA (Guardia Civil’s nature and environment division). Investigations found illegal fishing in Portugal and two routes of entry into Spain with final destinations including Huelva and Cantabria.
The 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. Clams were harvested in Portugal and moved to Spain for the lucrative summer season and end-of-the-year holidays. After a clean-up, they were sold in markets and restaurants. Washing helped get rid of bacteria such as E. coli but did not eliminate viruses like norovirus genogroup I and II and hepatitis A.
There is no link between these fraudulent practices and outbreaks of norovirus in several countries traced to shellfish from France in late 2019 and early 2020.
The May FFN meeting attendees heard that a screening of EU databases has allowed cases of trade with similar suspicions to be identified. Some member states have informed DG SANTE of infringements to EU legislation on hygiene rules in the trade of bivalve mollusks.
Document forgery and lack of traceability
DG SANTE has proposed nations reinforce EU legislation to improve traceability in the sector and the digitalization of information to address document forgery.
Irregularities relate to documentation discrepancies and poor traceability aiming to hide the operation of non-registered operators such as harvesters, purification and dispatch centers, harvesting of mollusks in non-authorized areas, poor sanitary conditions of storage and transport and mixing of illegal harvests with legal ones.
These discrepancies include mis-declared date of harvesting, areas, species, quantities and health status, absence of information on the harvester, lacking or incorrect details of transport, and falsification of delivering dates in purification centers.
They qualify as potential fraud because, for economic reasons, they intentionally infringe EU legislation on hygiene rules for food of animal origin and lead to customer deception with increased health risk for consumers and unfair competition with honest businesses.
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