Crims' food fraud a growing risk

By Jamie Doward, Amy Moore

From adulterated olive oil to counterfeit vodka, the global trade in gang-organised fake food is booming.

Industries such as commercial fishing, olive oil and growers of produce  such as limes are susceptible to criminal gangs and food fraud. Photo / AP
Industries such as commercial fishing, olive oil and growers of produce such as limes are susceptible to criminal gangs and food fraud. Photo / AP

At first glance the sprawling rural campus 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, a major research hub, are playing a vital role in tackling organised crime.

They have been contracted by the British Government's Rural Payments Agency to establish the purity of olive oil which, since March, has been subject to new EU regulations designed to ensure 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 passing off inferior olive oil and other vegetable oils 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. Cheap pomace olive oil - extracted from olive residue using chemicals - sells for 32.3p per 100ml, compared with 1.50 ($2.92) 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."

Other 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 - which is far riskier, 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 police detective and adviser to the Government's Elliot review into food chain integrity, told a parliamentary committee 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 next month, 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 1200 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.

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 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 taken from woods and fields.

In Britain, police seized 17,156 litres of counterfeit vodka, with an estimated street value of 1 million, 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 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."

But counterfeiting is only one of the criminal gangs' weapons. In Mexico the Knights Templar drug cartel has been taking over lime farms in the Tierra Caliente. The cartel now controls a large proportion of the limes exported to the US and prices have tripled. The same group is also seeking to control the avocado trade.

More than 40 people were killed by methanol-contaminated vodka and rum in the Czech Republic in 2012. At least one person has died in the UK. British trading standards departments have warned there has been a fivefold increase in seizures of counterfeit alcohol since 2009. Fakes have been found to contain a range of dangerous contaminants, including isopropanol, methanol and chloroform.

"The most surprising aspect is the ingenuity," said Stuart Shotton, consultancy services director at Foodchain Europe, which advises the industry on food security. "You've got some very clever people - food technologists; people who are experienced in the industry - who are making decisions and changes on a scientific basis to figure out what they can do to a product to increase its commercial viability."

Shotton said criminal gangs would move into food fraud if they were attracted by one of two factors. "Either a product is high value but low volume and you want to replace certain elements to make more of a profit, or it is low price [but] high volume, where economies of scale dictate that if you can shave a penny off a product and you are selling a million products, you've made a substantial amount of money."

He called on the food industry to learn from other industries, such as fashion brands, if it was going to secure itself successfully against criminal activity. "We don't have holograms or watermarks - maybe that's the route we need to start going down," Shotton said.

The Food Standards Agency acknowledges that reports of known or suspected food fraud have steadily risen since the inception of its food fraud database in 2007. Back then just 49 reports were submitted. Last year the number had increased to 1538.

A spokesman said the most common concern - involving 16 per cent of all reports submitted last year - was to do with the sale of "unfit food".

Counterfeit alcohol, mostly vodka and wine, was the second-largest issue, representing some 14 per cent of the reports created.

The Elliot review is expected to recommend that the food industry must "think like a criminal" if it is to thwart criminal activity. Morris said Italy deals with a lot of food crime involving premium products like buffalo mozzarella or olive oil.

"They ask themselves, 'Where is the biggest opportunity to make money? Let's focus there.' The only way you are going to head off the crooks is to have an idea of where they are going to strike and target your surveillance resource there."

- Observer

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