Europol warns “food fraud on the rise” as illicit meat, seafood and expired food cases increase
30 Mar 2022 --- Europol’s latest Opson IX report on food fraud activity across 77 countries worldwide details a total of 12,000 illicit food products seized with a retail value of approximately US$40 million.
Roughly 19 organized crime groups were disrupted, and 27,579 inspections were carried out. About 2 million liters of fake or sub-standard drinks and 2,000 tons of fraudulent fruit, vegetables and legumes were seized.
The report highlights seizures, inspections, arrests, criminal cases, administrative cases, search warrants for 2020 to 2021. The next update will follow later this year.
“A lot of attention has been paid to the problem of the meat industry and the meat sector and relatively much attention to the fishing sectors. These are the important sectors,” Eric Sonnet, inspector director, Federal Public Service (FPS) Economy, Brussels, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“We have the problem that a certain species (fish) is sold as another species. That’s relatively harder to see because there are a lot of species of fish, and there are a few that are not in the database – that could be one of those problems that arise.”
High fraud risk meat category
According to Europol, illicit products in this category remain at high risk for public health. At the same time, their wide demand is a pull factor in terms of intellectual property rights (IPR) crime because the sale of these products involves a brand or a designation of origin.
Participants reported 169 cases involving roughly 255 metric tons of meat and meat products, estimated roughly at US$1 million. This is more than double the cases reported in the previous year.
The value of seizures increased by 20%, indicating that it is a high-risk category, especially during crises.
Open sources indicate that this product poses additional threats in the COVID-19 pandemic, which proved that zoonotic infection clusters could form and spread rapidly among workers of meat processing plants or specialized markets.
North Macedonia reported higher seizures with 21 metric tons of frozen chicken, Hungary with 15 metric tons of meat products, Portugal with 17 metric tons and Italy with 9 metric tons.
Illicit activity for this category relates to species substitution, false halal certification, false labeling, expiration, products originating in avian influenza areas, illegal slaughtering of horses and pigs, hazardous hygiene conditions and no traceability or labels.
“Active fraud always has a financial aspect, so those people who cheat try to substitute a key ingredient with a cheaper element or sell something cheaper than the effective product, for example, cured meat sold as cured beef, 100% beef that is part pork, fish that is sold as cod or an oil with sugar added,” Sonnet explains.
FPS has 15 members monitoring food and nutrition fraud or related matters. The function is split among various authorities, such as the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).
“There is always an aspect of mixing cheaper elements in a more expensive main ingredient like fried chicken that has added water to make it appear more high-end. We do many controls in this sector, but we do not see much activity in Belgium,” says Sonnet.
Seafood is a complicated category
The threat related to seafood is increasing and becoming more complex, Europol reports. Illegal fishing, food safety and IPR crimes of products subjected to the designation of origin mar the sale of seafood.
About 43 tons of illicit seafood products were reported in 79 cases, estimated at around US$ 591,094. Two arrests and two search warrants were carried out. Higher seizures were reported by Portugal, totaling 30 tons of cod, sole, manta fish, bivalve mollusks, cuttlefish and octopus.
Unspecified seafood was reported for Italy and Jordan. A ton of dried shrimp was recovered in Belgium.
The food items seized were “species substitutions,” for example, Alaskan plaice instead of sole fish or the sale of various types of other fish as Atlantic/Pacific cod. Packaging issues were reported for adding water to frozen scallops to increase weight, mislabeling the product (generic commercial name instead of the exact species) or expired products.
In Italy, in one seizure, the authorities found counterfeit labels falsely stating that the fish products were coming from a particular plant in a marketplace.
In South Africa, the invoice for several seafood products stated personal protection equipment (masks and gloves) related to COVID-19.
“The industry wants to avoid consumers losing confidence. For example, the horsemeat fraud caused a problem for the cattle sector and took years to regain consumers’ trust. That is certainly not a positive element for the meat sector if fraud is committed,” says Sonnet.
Food supplements and additives ripe for fraud
The participants reported 40 seizures – totaling about 52 tons of illicit products with an estimated value of US$2 million – of supplements and additives. The US also reported notable seizures. In one case, 300,000 pieces were seized, and in other cases, a total of 147,636 of supplements under the form of pills or powder were recovered.
North Macedonia seized about 5,400 “black seed oil and olive oil” capsules, while Ecuador seized 3,400 units of yeast. Approximately 26 arrests, 16 search warrants and three OCGs have been reported in correlation with this category.
Sale of expired goods is on the rise
According to Europol, countries should evaluate their approach to tackling the security of the food supply chain by looking into new strategies, increased controls, safer procedures and preventative measures. Ensuring better protection for law enforcement personnel was cited as another critical element in curbing food fraud.
COVID-19 decreased organized crime involvement in food crime in the first months of the pandemic.
The number of seizures involving expired food items was the highest seen thus far. The Europol team logged 408 criminal cases, 407 arrest warrants and 235 search warrants. A total of 2,980 administrative points were logged.
Significant IPR threats to food
Non-alcoholic beverages pose an increasing threat to the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) environment and are susceptible to counterfeiting, especially in Africa and Asia. Illegal products seized were present in 104 reports, totaling 422 tons with an estimated value of US$348,699.
Italy, Indonesia, Burundi and Jordan have seen significant seizures of non-alcoholic beverages, including bottled water, ginger juice, energy drinks and soda pops. One OCG has been apprehended, and 89 arrest warrants have been issued.
Dairy products have been cited as a significant threat to IPR and public health, particularly in Europe, when a brand or designation of origin is associated with it. A total of 435 tons were recovered in 69 seizures, with an estimated value of US$10.6 million.
Italy reported several notable seizures primarily for food safety and fraud around cheese. Portugal seized 54 tons of cheese in which the product’s characteristics deceived consumers. Among irregularities discovered is the use of UHT milk containing foreign substances, false labeling or damaged packaging, to name a few.
According to Europol, fruit, vegetables, and legumes pose a moderate threat, with 98 cases having been reported. An increase of 440 tons with an estimated value of US$665,243 has been reported, double the figure documented in the previous report.
The highest seizures in this category were for sweet potatoes and honey pumpkin of Portugal (284 tons), olives in brine of Italy (76 tons) and unknown parsley roots in Hungary (4.1 tons). Four arrest warrants and two search warrants were issued in connection with this category.
In most cases, the seizures were carried out because of food safety reasons, relating to possible contagious organisms, irregularities in labeling, presence of animal origin substances, expired products or general lack of sanitary inspection documents.
While sugar and sweet products pose a medium threat to public health, Europol statistics show an increasing threat to the food-related IPR environment. Italy reported notable seizures for refined sugar and Belarus for chocolate.
Two higher seizures were reported in the honey category, and several seizures were carried out in Indonesia for jelly cups, jelly sticks and sugar made of molasses. Adulterated honey and honey smuggling was reported in Croatia, Italy, Spain and Denmark.
By Inga de Jong
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