EUROPE – Europol has issued a stark warning about a surge in food fraud after Operation OPSON Europe, a joint initiative by Europol and INTERPOL, uncovered a disturbing trend of criminals relabeling expired goods on an “unprecedented scale.”
The operation, conducted between December 2022 and April 2023, resulted in the seizure of illicit foods valued at €30 million euros (U.S$ 31.6 million), weighing a staggering 8,000 tons.
During OPSON Europe, law enforcement agencies from 25 countries collaborated to combat food fraud across various sectors, including customs areas, retail outlets, e-commerce platforms, and the entire food supply chain.
The operation, supported by multiple European agencies and private-sector partners, involved 400 inspections, 143 arrest warrants, and 168 search warrants. In total, 119 individuals were reported to judicial authorities, and six criminal networks were disrupted.
Europol highlighted several alarming trends, including criminal organizations purchasing food meant for disposal, relabeling it, and putting it back into circulation.
Among the seized items, canned fish, recycled after its expiration date, emerged as a significant public health hazard.
One major case involved a Lithuanian-led criminal organization operating in France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and Spain, illegally relabeling and trafficking spoiled and expired food. This operation led to 27 arrests, with over 1.5 million packages confiscated.
In Spain, the Civil Guard investigated cases involving expired meats, fish, and seafood. Criminal networks manipulated expiration dates and sold these products without undergoing mandatory regulatory processes, resulting in eight arrests and the seizure and destruction of more than 25 tons of food.
Additionally, a separate case uncovered sugar fraud, where fraudsters exported invert sugar disguised as grape derivatives, leading to a seizure worth €1.3 million.
OPSON Europe also identified the misuse of protected food names, including products like feta cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and Welsh beef. Checks in the UK revealed cases of mislabeling and a lack of adherence to regulations governing protected food names.
Participating countries in OPSON Europe, including Belgium, Germany, Spain, the UK, and many others, demonstrated the necessity for global cooperation in tackling food fraud.
Europol’s findings underscore the urgent need for heightened vigilance and stronger international collaboration to safeguard consumers from the risks posed by counterfeit and expired foods.