Europol has drawn attention to an increasing trend of food fraudsters relabeling expired goods after operation OPSON Europe—a Europol-INTERPOL joint operation targeting fake and substandard food and beverages—found relabeled expired products at an “unprecedented scale.” Overall, €30 million euros worth of illicit foods weighing 8,000 tons were seized between December 2022 and April 2023.
The operation targeted food fraud in customs areas, brick-and-mortar retail, e-commerce platforms, and across the food supply chain. 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 European Commission Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI), and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), as well as national food regulatory authorities and private-sector partners.
Authorities involved in OPSON Europe carried out 400 inspections, issued 143 arrest warrants and 168 search warrants, reported 119 individuals to judicial authorities, and disrupted six criminal networks. The main illicit products seized, in order of quantity, were:
- Alcoholic beverages
- Cereals, grains, and derived products
- Fruits, vegetables, and legumes
- Sweet and sugary products
- Meat and meat products
- Dairy products
- Food supplements and additives.
In the majority of cases involving relabeled expired goods, Europol reports that criminal organizations would approach waste disposal companies and purchase food that should have been destroyed, which they would then relabel and sell. Europol reports that a certain recycled expired food product—canned fish—posed a significant public health hazard.
In one significant instance, Europol tracked down a company that was recycling spoiled and expired food in France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and Spain. The criminal organization, led by a Lithuanian citizen, was conducting illegal operations across the four countries, including the illegal relabeling and trafficking of spoiled and expired food. The first phase of the operational activities in Italy and Lithuania led to 27 arrests. The investigation, led by the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, led to 24 arrests, while the parallel case in Italy led to the arrests of three other individuals. The total seizures following the operational activities amounted to more than 1.5 million packages.
As another example of expired food trafficking, the Spanish Civil Guard investigated two cases of fraud involving meat in Seville and Zaragoza. The first investigation of two individuals who were trafficking ham without traceability and with manipulated expiration dates led to the seizure of 48,896 kilograms (kg) and 3,000 pieces of ham and sausage. The second investigation targeted a criminal network trafficking expired meats, fish, and seafood. The suspects falsified the labeling and trafficking of the food without going through the mandatory regulatory process. A total of eight arrests were made, 48 individuals are under investigation, and more than 25 tons of food products have been seized and destroyed.
Another significant investigation, led by the Spanish Civil Guard but unrelated to the trafficking of expired food, involved sugar fraud perpetrated by three people and two companies. The suspects exported products from invert sugar, which they presented as grape derivatives and concentrated grape juice, allowing them to double or triple the sale price and resulting profits. The products were often exported to countries outside the EU, mainly South Africa. The operation seized two tanks of fraudulent product containing 1.08 tons of invert sugar with a retail value of €1.3 million.
The misuse of protected food names was also a reoccurring issue identified by OPSON Europe. In the UK, authorities performed checks on protected food name products in foodservice and retail establishments, finding cases of noncompliance in products like feta cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Grana Padano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, Welsh beef, Cornish pasties, and watercress. The checks identified mislabeling, the temporary unavailability of a specified ingredient in restaurants, and a lack of understanding of the regulations governing the use of protected food names.
Participating counties in OPSON Europe included Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK.