Europol and INTERPOL coordinated operation OPSON 2020, which targeted trafficking of counterfeit and substandard food and beverage

The operation, the tenth of its kind, ran from December 2019 to June 2021 and involved law enforcement authorities from 72* countries, including 26 EU Member States. The operation was also supported by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), as well as national food regulatory authorities and private-sector partners.

OPSON X in brief:
• 15 451 tonnes of illicit products seized with a value of about € 53.8 million
• About 68 000 checks
• 663 arrest warrants
• 2 409 location searches
• 42 criminal networks disrupted

What are the main illegal products seized?
(in order of quantity)
• Alcoholic beverage
• Food supplements and additives
• Cereals, grains and derived products
• Fruits and vegetables
• Sugar and sweet products
• Meat and meat products
• Seafood
• Dairy products
• Poultry products
• Livestock
• Condiments
• Cooking oil
• Non-alcoholic beverages
• Coffee and tea
• Canned food
• Animal food

Case examples
• Trade of bivalves unfit for human consumption: eight arrests, seven companies investigated, seizures of € 120 000, 25 vehicles and 12 vessels; operation of the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and the Portuguese National Guard (Guarda Nacional Republicana), supported by Europol
• Adulteration of alcohol beverages: the criminal network used colourants to change the quality of the beverages; 14 arrests; seizures included 47 660 litres of whiskey and 9 550 litres of alcohol for the manufacture of fraudulent products; operation of the Guardia Civil and customs authorities, supported by Europol
• Counterfeiting of wine: five house arrest and three residence obligations, operation of the Italian Carabinieri Corps (NAS Carabinieri), supported by the Swiss Police and Europol

1 Honey or not: corn syrup and sugarcane alterations

Targeted action on honey in: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (Scotland), the United States.

Fake honey has been in circulation since the 1970s when high-fructose corn syrup became widely available. To increase volumes and illegal profits, criminals add much cheaper corn syrup and sugarcane to genuine honey. This activity affects the market, which becomes inundated with counterfeits that are priced much lower than the genuine product. Consequently, beekeepers are forced to gradually lower the prices of genuine products. This can endanger their activities, leading them to decrease production as well as the bee populations that they maintain.

Europol requested that national authorities perform checks on illegal products that could be detected in the supply chain. Dedicated food safety authorities performed checks on the internal markets, including livestock direct sales, collection and processing of bee products, wholesale trades, distributors, deposits, street markets, retail trades and productions of ready-to-eat foods. The authorities mainly checked the analytical detection of sugar syrup and corn syrup.

• 495 checks
• 7 % non-compliant products, implying the seizure of more than
• 51 000 kg of fraudulently treated honey

2 Fake in a glass

Targeted action on alcohol and wine in: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Northern Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, the United Kingdom (Scotland).

Alcohol counterfeiting remains a serious threat to consumers while negatively affecting legitimate producers. OLAF coordinated the activities targeting fraud relating to alcohol and wine.

• 1.7 million litres of wine, beer and alcoholic beverages seized
• Most infringements related to wine and vodka
• Reported also: food safety frauds and fiscal infringements

3 Focus on the sale of illegal horse meat

Targeted action on horse passports and horse meat in: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain.

Operation OPSON IX saw the launch of a dedicated project to support national authorities in combating the sale of illegal horse meat. This action was led by Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands and supported by DG SANTE. The follow-up activities during OPSON X led to the opening of three new investigations in EU countries.

Europol’s Intellectual Property Crime Coordinated Coalition (IPC3) coordinated OPSON IX together with INTERPOL, facilitated the information exchange and provided technical and analytical support to participating countries. Europol also organised the targeted actions.

Europol’s IPC3 is co-funded by EUIPO to combat intellectual property crime.

Catherine De Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director, highlighted that
Counterfeit and substandard food and beverage can be found both 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. With more than 15 000 tonnes of illegal products seized, operation OPSON X illustrates the importance of cooperation between national authorities and the private sector in protecting consumers’ rights and the quality of the products we put on our tables.

Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General said:
Removing such an enormous quantity of illegal and often dangerous products from the market is a concrete example of how international police cooperation is making the world a safer place. 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.

Ville Itälä, OLAF’s Director General, said:
OLAF once again played a leading role in one of the key actions under Operation OPSON, focused on illicit wine and alcohol. The risks posed by these products to EU citizens and businesses are very real, and OLAF is proud to have worked hand-in-hand with Europol and national customs and police authorities in identifying, tracking and stopping the counterfeiters and fraudsters in this important part of the food and drink sector.