LYON, France, February 19, 2014 (ENS) – Environmental offenses were uncovered as more than 1,200 metric tons of fake or substandard food and nearly 430,000 liters of counterfeit drinks were seized in an Interpol-Europol coordinated operation across the Americas, Asia and Europe.

Code-named Operation Opson III, the operation targeted the organized crime networks behind the illicit trade in counterfeit and unregulated food and drink. In total, 96 people were arrested or detained, with investigations continuing in many countries.

The operation, conducted throughout December 2013 and January 2014, involved police, customs, national food regulatory bodies and partners from the private sector, with checks carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and private homes.

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Interpol police officer examines products in a Belgian grocery (Photo courtesy Interpol)

Interpol’s series of Opson operations, named for the word for food in ancient Greek, began in December 2011. The number of countries participating in Opson rose from 10 in 2011 to 29 in 2012, and expanded beyond Europe to include countries from Africa, the Americas and Asia.

Thirty-three countries participated in this year’s operation, supported for the first time by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Consumers.

“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,” said Michael Ellis, head of Interpol’s Trafficking in Illicit Goods and Counterfeiting unit, which coordinated activities among participating countries.

Operation Opson III led to the seizure of  more than 131,000 liters of oil and vinegar, more than 80,000 biscuits and chocolate bars, 20 tons of spices and condiments, 186 tons of cereals, 45 tons of dairy products and 42 liters of honey.

In Spain, 24 people were detained for illegal work and immigration offenses after 4.5 tons of snails illegally taken from woods and fields were recovered.

French police identified and shut down an illegal abattoir on the outskirts of Paris.

Fish and seafood were the largest category of foodstuffs seized. Some 685 tons were recovered for offenses including poor preservation or being incorrectly labeled.

One seizure of 484 tons of yellowfin tuna did not have the required documents for traceability.

In Bangkok, Royal Thai Police raided a warehouse and recovered more than 270 bottles of fake whiskey, as well as forged stickers, labels and packaging.

Officials in the Philippines seized nearly 150,000 fake stock cubes.

“Interpol is committed to turning back this threat to public health and safety by organized criminal networks which are making millions in profits,” said Ellis. “These can then be channelled into other illicit activity such as human and drug trafficking.”

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Interpol officers make arrests in connection with Operation Opson III (Photo courtesy Interpol)

In Italy, an organized crime network behind the manufacture and distribution of fake champagne was discovered. Material to prepare 60,000 bottles including fake labels were seized following raids on two sites, with three people arrested and 24 others reported to authorities.

Stijn Adriaenssen, Inspector at the Belgian Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain said, “These results show the global character of this type of fraud and the necessity to tackle these crimes together on a national and international level.”

Europol’s Intellectual Property Crime Team coordinated Opson III within the EU, providing operational support to EU countries and third parties with a Europol agreement.

Chris Vansteenkiste, project manager of the team, explained, “We see clear improvements in the fight against food fraud, especially thanks to the greater involvement of relevant private and public stakeholders. It is important to keep the focus on this area of crime since the more information we collect, the more we realize that this illicit trade is managed and run by organized crime groups.”

Among the key aims of Opson are the identification of the organized criminal networks behind the trafficking; development of practical cooperation between the involved law enforcement, food and drug agencies and private companies; and to raise awareness of the dangers posed by counterfeit and substandard foods.

Colombia’s Director of Fiscal Police and Customs Brigadier General Gustavo Alberto Moreno Maldonado said, “The success of the Operation OPSON III demonstrates the joint commitment of Colombia, Europol and Interpol in the serious fight against international smuggling.”

Countries which took part in Opson III are: Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, South Korea, Sweden, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam.

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