Food forgery

Cartels and organised crime target food in hunt for riches

From adulterated olive oil to counterfeit vodka, the trade in fake food is booming – and for mafia gangs it’s less risky than drugs. Olive oil is the product most at risk of food fraud, and the rewards for adulteration of it are substantial.

At first glance the sprawling campus in the glorious Cotswolds countryside looks an unlikely base from which to wage war against Italy’s most feared crime organisation, the ‘Ndrangheta.

And yet the laboratories of Campden BRI, once part of the University of Bristol and now a major research hub, are, in their own quiet way, playing a vital role in tackling organised crime. The laboratories are not conducting forensic tests on specks of blood or splinters of bone. Rather, they have been contracted by the government’s Rural Payments Agency to carry out chemical tests to establish the purity of olive oil which, since March, has been subject to new EU regulations designed to ensure that consumers get what they believe they are paying for.

This is bad news for the ‘Ndrangheta and other organised criminal gangs, which for decades have been assiduously passing off inferior olive oil and oil from other vegetable sources as the premium extra virgin variety.

According to the European parliament’s food safety committee, olive oil is the product most at risk of food fraud, and the rewards for adulteration of it are substantial. Cheap pomace olive oil – extracted from olive residue using chemicals – sells for 32.3p per 100ml, compared with £1.50 for extra virgin.

“Olive oil is a valuable commodity and fraud is on the increase,” said Dr Julian South, head of chemistry and biochemistry at Campden BRI. “Food authenticity continues to be a high-profile issue, and the testing of olive oils is taking place in all European Union member states.”

Jenny Morris, principal policy officer at the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, acknowledged that olive oil was ripe for fraud. “A lot of people buy virgin olive oil,” she said. “They like the fact that it is high quality and they are prepared to pay a premium. If you are a criminal and you get hold of some oil, not necessarily olive oil, you can colour it green with a bit of chlorophyll and make a lot of money out of it. Because of its distribution, it is sometimes hard to track.”

Many other products vulnerable

But many other products are almost as vulnerable to criminal adulteration as olive oil. Other popular and lucrative frauds include diluting honey with cheap sugar syrup, passing off methanol as vodka, mixing inferior rice with premium basmati and switching cheap fish such as catfish with expensive alternatives like haddock. It certainly beats mixing cocaine with bulking agents like talcum powder – an activity that is far riskier than corrupting the food chain, according to experts.

“At the moment the risks for criminals operating in this field are low because they are not routinely coming up against trained and organised professional investigators,” Gary Copson, a former Metropolitan police detective and advisor to the government’s Elliot review into food chain integrity, told a parliamentary committee earlier this year.

“While there is excellent work being done by trading standards, it is generally focused at a lower level. They don’t have the capacity to work at the higher level that we have seen and suspect is in the background,” Copson said, according to Environmental Health News.

The Elliot review, due to report by early June, will help to highlight the extent to which organised crime has penetrated food distribution networks. This became apparent during the horsemeat scandal last year and was confirmed in February following the launch of Operation Opson III, an Interpol campaign that seized more than 1,200 tonnes of fake or sub-standard food and nearly 430,000 litres of counterfeit drinks.

Almost 100 people were arrested or detained in 33 countries, while officers impounded more than 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar, 80,000 biscuits and chocolate bars, 20 tonnes of spices and condiments, 186 tonnes of cereals, 45 tonnes of dairy products and 42 litres of honey.

The largest amounts of foodstuffs seized were in the fish or seafood category – including 484 tonnes of yellowfin tuna. Some of the frauds uncovered in the operation came straight from the pages of bad novels. Investigators discovered an organised crime network in Italy behind the manufacture and distribution of fake champagne. Materials to prepare 60,000 bottles, including fake labels, were seized following raids on two sites, with three people arrested and 24 others reported to the authorities.

In Bangkok, the Royal Thai police raided a warehouse and recovered more than 270 bottles of fake whisky, as well as forged stickers, labels and packaging. Officials in the Philippines seized nearly 150,000 fake stock cubes, while French police identified and shut down an illegal abattoir on the outskirts of Paris. In Spain, 24 people were detained for illegal work and immigration offences after investigators recovered 4.5 tonnes of snails that had been taken from woods and fields.

In the UK, police seized 17,156 litres of counterfeit vodka, with an estimated street value of £1m, worth around £270,000 to the UK exchequer in duty and VAT.

Michael Ellis, head of Interpol’s trafficking in illicit goods and counterfeiting unit, said at the time that the operation would have opened many people’s eyes to the threats posed by organised criminal networks. “Most people would be surprised at the everyday foods and drink which are being counterfeited, and the volume of seizures shows that this is a serious global problem,” he said.

But counterfeiting is only one weapon in the criminal gangs’ armoury. In Mexico, a drug cartel known as the Knights Templar has recently been taking over lime farms in an area called the Tierra Caliente. The cartel now controls a large proportion of the limes exported to the US, with the result that prices have tripled. The same group is also seeking to control the avocado trade…..

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