Smaller Operation Opson highlights expired food reuse issue

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A toned-down version of a major operation targeting unsafe food has revealed the growing problem of relabeling expired food.

Opson Europe, or Opson XII, was coordinated by Europol and occurred between December 2022 and April 2023. In the past, Operation Opson has also involved Interpol.

Activities targeted food fraud in customs areas, physical and online markets such as e-commerce platforms, and the food supply chain.

Europe in focus
Opson Europe involved law enforcement authorities from 25 countries and was supported by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), the EU Commission Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI), and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), as well as national food regulators and the private sector.

A total of 8,000 tons of products were seized, including 6.5 million liters of mainly alcohol, according to data reported to Europol. Also, 400 inspections were carried out, 143 arrest warrants were issued, and 168 search warrants were executed.

Alcoholic beverages were the main product confiscated, followed by cereals, grains, and derived products; fruits, vegetables, and legumes; sweet and sugary products; and meat and meat products.

In 2022, 26,800 tons of food and 15 million liters of beverages were blocked from sale, and 74,000 inspections were undertaken.

Driven by disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the latest operation, Europol highlighted the risks of fraud related to the use of spoiled or expired food to reduce production costs.

Europol detected the relatively new trend of relabeling expired food on an “unprecedented scale”. Criminal groups often approach waste disposal companies and purchase food that should have been destroyed. They then erase the labels’ expiration dates and print new ones to replace them. The food quality is poor, but it also presents health hazards, as seen in a canned fish case. 

Example operations
In one incident, a company was relabeling and trafficking spoiled or expired food in France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and Spain. A Lithuanian citizen led the organization. The investigation, led by the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, led to 24 arrests, while the case in Italy prompted the arrests of three other people. Seizures totaled more than 1.5 million packages.     

In the United Kingdom, authorities checked protected food name products in restaurants and retailers. Controls identified cases of non-compliance with products such as feta, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Grana Padano cheeses, meats such as Prosciutto di Parma, and products of UK origin such as Welsh beef, Cornish pasties and watercress. Inspections identified mislabeling and the temporary unavailability of a specified ingredient in restaurants, but also a lack of understanding of regulations around using protected food names.

In another annual operation targeting fake or illegal pesticides, law enforcement agencies seized 2,040 tons of illicit pesticides, arrested 21 suspects, and found several production facilities used to counterfeit pesticides.

Operation Silver Axe VIII occurred between January and April 2023 and involved law enforcement authorities from 32 countries, including the United States, the UK, Australia, and Brazil.

Trends include selling counterfeit or banned products and unregulated online and offline imports. Unregulated substances can be dangerous for the environment and human health. Asia and South Asia remain the primary sources of illegal pesticides, but much of the production and finishing occur in Europe.

Catherine De Bolle, executive director of Europol, said: “These clandestine chemicals may come with a low price tag, but they take a heavy toll on the environment, public health, agricultural livelihoods and even the wellbeing of our vital bee colonies.” 

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