More than 15,000 tons of food and drink worth $60 million has been seized globally in operations targeting fake and potentially dangerous products.

Operation Opson X involved 72 countries between December 2020 and June 2021. The annual drive is coordinated by Interpol and Europol and featured police, customs, national food regulatory authorities and private sector companies.

In total, 15,451 tons of illegal products were found with an estimated street value of €53.8 million ($63.3 million). Nearly 68,000 checks were carried out by participating countries, resulting in 1,000 criminal cases being opened.

The top seized goods by quantity were alcohol and food supplements, followed by cereals and grain products and fruit and vegetables. Alcoholic drinks were the most commonly counterfeited.

In Operation Opson in 2020, 77 countries took part and about 12,000 tons of illegal items were confiscated. Animal food was the most seized product followed by alcoholic beverages.

Food posing consumer health risk
In the latest Opson, eight people were arrested and seven companies investigated as authorities clamped down on the trade of bivalves, such as mussels and oysters, unfit for human consumption. This involved seizures of €120,000 ($141,000), 25 vehicles and 12 vessels by the Spanish Guardia Civil and Portuguese National Guard (Guarda Nacional Republicana).

Bags of substandard foodstuffs seized by authorities in Rwanda (most likely maize or baking flour). Picture: Interpol

Thirty tons of frozen chicken were returned to Poland because of the detection of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in the area goods came from. In Portugal, 61 tons of organic bananas from Ecuador with traces of pesticides were confiscated and in Rwanda, poorly transported meat and expired butter were seized.

In another case, a criminal network used colorants to change the quality of beverages. This led to 14 arrests and seizures including 47,660 liters of whiskey and 9,550 liters of alcohol for the manufacture of fraudulent products by the Guardia Civil and customs authorities.

Jürgen Stock, Interpol secretary general, said removing the enormous quantity of illegal and often dangerous products from the market is an example of how international police cooperation is making the world safer.

“Food crime may not always seem like a top policing priority but operations like Opson X demonstrate the massive profits these products generate, which can then fund other organized crime activities.”

Action was supported by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).

U.S. involved in checking honey
More than 650 arrest warrants were issued during the operation, which is estimated to have disrupted the work of 42 organized crime groups worldwide.

The U.S. was part of a targeted action on honey that featured 495 checks with 7 percent of products non-compliant and 51,000 kilograms of fraudulently treated honey seized.

Officials in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and Scotland mainly checked the analytical detection of sugar syrup and corn syrup.

In continued work from the previous Opson operation, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain looked at horse passports and the sale of illegal horse meat.

Catherine De Bolle, Europol’s executive director, said counterfeit and substandard food and beverages can be found on the physical market and sold online.

“The increased health risk for consumers is proportional to the reduced quality of raw materials used in the food processing system. Europol sees a recent development: low-quality products have infiltrated the food supply chain, an evolution possibly related to the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Enforcement action also found fake test kits for COVID-19, HIV and malaria, bush meat and other products of wildlife crime.

The results mark a decade of Opson operations, with the first in 2011 involving just 10 countries and recovering illicit goods worth €300,000 ($353,000).

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