The food and drink industry is one of the largest industrial sectors globally, with a combined turnover of €2.6 trillion in the three largest producing regions, EU, China and the US, and involving over 700,000 companies. With the size of the industry and the number of people and businesses involved, it is inevitable that there will be attempts at criminal activities.

Food production is particularly vulnerable to crime, whether intentional or unintentional. It ranges from regulatory non-compliance that is serious enough to risk harm to consumers and trigger prosecution, to food fraud where there is intentional deceit involved.

Food crime often goes unreported and undetected. The consumers of the products may not be aware that what they are eating is not what they thought they were buying. There also is often no easy way for a consumer to tell that a more expensive ingredient has been substituted for a cheaper, lower quality one, as happened with the recent horse meat scandal in Europe.

It may take a serious health outcome to alert consumers and authorities to fraudulent food, as with the intentional contamination of milk and infant formula with melamine by several producers in China in 2008. This uncovered multiple failures in the milk supply chain and even complicity by local authorities (Wikipedia, 2016).

Types of food crime

The UK Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland have produced an assessment of the risks from food crime in the UK. They categorise food crime into several types and threats:

Pure crime

Pure crime involves serious criminal activity with intention to alter food. This is classified into four types of threat:

  • Adulteration: rendering food poorer in quality by adding an extraneous substance eg methanol in vodka.
  • Substitution: replacing all or part of a foodstuff with another substance of a similar kind without altering its overall characteristics eg cheaper type of meat.
  • Diversion: turning a foodstuff or other substance away from its intended course or purpose, eg animal waste in food sold to consumers.
  • Misrepresentation: selling a product as something it isn’t eg regarding origin, quality, safety, nutrition.

Indirect crime

Indirect crime refers to the impact on food safety due to other criminal activity:

  • Fraudulently using the identity of a legitimate  business to sell substandard products for financial gain.

Food crime can also occur at different parts of the food chain:

  • Production: the food/drink manufacturer, whether authorised or illicit premises or processes.
  • Logistics: using the spaces between stages in the system to deliberately deceive about origin or quality.
  • Retail: selling the product, including through the grey/black economy or online.
  • Disposal: repurposing products that were destined for disposal in food for consumption.

When ensuring food standards are applied across supply chains, transparency and traceability are vital factors for preventing fraud and maintaining the safety of consumers. Many food supply chains, especially for processed foods, are extremely complex and cross multiple borders. This makes the use of information and communications technology and international cooperation essential.

Learn more about food safety here.

Food crime in practice

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, reported on 30 March that more than 10,000 tonnes and one million litres of hazardous and fake food and drink were seized in operations across 57 countries in an INTERPOL-Europol co-ordinated operation to protect global food supply chains.

Europol said that a number of arrests were made worldwide and that investigations are continuing. Checks were carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and industrial estates between November 2015 and February 2016 by police, customs, national food regulatory bodies and partners from the private sector.

The goods seized included:

  • Belgium: customs officers at Zaventem airport discovered several kilos of monkey meat.
  • France: officers seized and destroyed 11 kilos of locusts and 20 kilos of caterpillars.
  • Italy: police recovered more than 85 tonnes of olives which had been ‘painted’ with copper sulphate solutions to enhance their colour.
  • Greece: officers discovered three illicit factories producing counterfeit alcohol. Police seized equipment used in the manufacturing process including labels, caps, empty bottles in addition to more than 7,400 bottles of fake alcohol and counterfeit labels.
  • Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, and Romania: customs and police authorities discovered counterfeit chocolates, sweets and non-alcoholic sparkling wine aimed at children and destined for export to West Africa.
  • UK:  authorities discovered nearly 10,000 litres of fake or adulterated alcohol including wine, whisky and vodka.
  • Thailand: police carried out checks on an individual found to be transporting four tonnes of meat illegally imported from India, further investigations led to the discovery of an illicit network operating across 10 provinces. Officers recovered and destroyed more than 30 tonnes of illegal beef and buffalo meat unfit for human consumption which had been destined for sale in supermarkets.
  • South Korea: police arrested a man smuggling dietary supplements which were being sold online as natural product but in fact contained harmful ingredients. The sale of these fake weight-loss products is estimated to have generated some US$170,000 over a 10-month period.
  • Australia: testing of 450 kg of honey found it had been falsely labelled and had been blended or adulterated; a consignment of peanuts had been repackaged and relabelled as pine nuts, posing a significant threat to allergy sufferers.
  • Indonesia: officials seized 70 kilos of chicken intestines which had been preserved in formalin, which is prohibited as a food additive. In a joint operation of the National Agency of Food and Drug Control, police and customs officers, more than 310,000 illegal food products were discovered hidden behind piles of tiles in a warehouse believed to have been smuggled by boat from Malaysia.
  • Bolivia: police discovered a warehouse containing thousands of cans of sardines, with fake labels of a famous Peruvian brand ready to be stuck on.
  • Burundi: more than 36,000 litres of illicit alcohol were seized in addition to nine Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition along with three grenades.
  • Sudan: nearly nine tonnes of counterfeit sugar contaminated with fertilizer were seized in Khartoum, Sudan.
  • Togo: officials destroyed 24 tonnes of imported tilapia which was found to be unfit for human consumption.
  • Zambia: police discovered 1,300 bottles of fake whisky in original packaging which had previously been stolen from a warehouse. More than 3,200 cartons of diet powder drinks where the expiration dates had been modified were also seized.

The head of INTERPOL’s Trafficking in Illicit Goods unit, Michael Ellis said, “Fake and dangerous food and drink threaten the health and safety of people around the world who are often unsuspectingly buying these potentially very dangerous goods”

“With Operation Opson V resulting in more seizures than ever before, we must continue to build on these efforts to identify the criminal networks behind this activity whose only concern is making a profit, no matter what the cost to the public.”

Chris Vansteenkiste, Cluster Manager of the Intellectual Property Crime Team at Europol added,Today’s rising food prices and the global nature of the food chain offer the opportunity for criminals to sell counterfeit and substandard food in a multi-billion criminal industry which can pose serious potential health risks to unsuspecting customers. The complexity and scale of this fraud means cooperation needs to happen across borders with a multi-agency approach”

“This year again, the results from Opson clearly reflect the threat that food fraud represents, as food adulterations cut across all kinds of categories and from all regions of the world. Sharing knowledge in one market may prevent food fraud in another and ultimately helps protect public health and safety worldwide.”

Operation Opson was launched in 2011 and involved 10 countries across Europe. It has now grown to nearly 60 countries worldwide.