Food fraud update at EU level and Interpol/Europol Opson VII operation preliminary findings

On 25 April 2018, Europol/Interpol published the results of the OPSON VII operation to which the EU Food Fraud Network contributed in particular in order to detect tuna intended for canning being fraudulently sold as fresh.

Justice, police, customs and food experts have been mobilised to investigate and to ensure the success of this operation in which 11 countries (Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) were involved. In some countries investigations took place on fishing vessels and in processing plants when, in other participating countries, extensive sampling plans took place at distribution and retail levels.

The case is about tuna for canning being illegally treated with substances that enhance the colour leading to a misleading impression of its freshness. This can represent a serious risk to public health, taking into account that the modification of the initial colour can mask spoilage allowing the development of biological amines (histamine) responsible for the so called scombroid syndrome in humans. Spain and France are also conducting judicial inquiries into tuna destined for canning and sold as fresh and on the illegal use of additives, the results of which cannot be disclosed at this moment. In total, more than 51 tons of tuna have been seized.

On the same topic, you can download also a Power Point presentation from DG Sante named Illegal treatment of Tuna: from canning grade to Sushi grade.

Coming back to Opson, the scale of this annual operation is growing ever year.

Run over the course of 4 months (December 2017 – March 2018) across 67 countries, OPSON VII resulted in the total seizure of more than 3.620 tonnes and 9.7 million litres of either counterfeit or substandard food and beverages as a results of more than 41.000 checks carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and industrial estates. In total some 749 people were arrested or detained with investigations continuing in many countries.

“The results of OPSON demonstrate what can be achieved to protect consumers worldwide when law enforcement agencies join their efforts and perform coordinated actions”, said Jari Liukku, Head of Europol’s European Serious and Organised Crime Centre, “It is a threat which requires such cooperation across borders, taking into account the increased integration and globalisation of supply chains. All countries face this threat and it is the duty of law enforcement agencies to make sure what consumers get in their plate is genuine and safe”.

“The dismantling of nearly 50 criminal networks involved in the production of fake food and drink is an important result in stemming the flow of potentially lethal products into the marketplace,” said Daoming Zhang, Head of INTERPOL’s Illicit Markets unit. “The volume of counterfeit and substandard products seized is a reminder to the public that they need to remain careful about what they buy and from where.”

A particularly disturbing case was discovered in Spain, where four people have been arrested and a factory that packaged counterfeit baby milk mostly destined for China was dismantled. Eight tonnes of the forged product were seized. The powder bought in bulk in Poland for one euro per kilo and delivered to Barcelona was not harmful but it lacked the nutrients needed by infants. It was also made in an environment that did not comply with food health and safety standards.

A final and detailed report on the results of the operation OPSON VII will be published in the upcoming months.

Recently on DG Sante website has been published also the Food Fraud Network (FFN) 2017 Annual Report, that shows an increment of the cases exchanged through the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System (AAC) from 87 (2016) to the actual number of 597.

Moreover in 2017, the DG Sante launched a coordinated control plan on food sold online.

It was very well received by the Member States. On a voluntary basis, the authorities of 25 EU Member States plus Switzerland and Norway participated. The authorities checked about 1100 websites for certain products which are non-compliant with EU food legislation, namely for non-authorised novel foods and food supplements bearing medicinal claims.

They found 779 offers for such products, mostly from traders based in the country of the respective authority (65%), but also from traders located in other Member States (20%) or third countries, namely US and China (15%). Although this was not mandatory, in about 440 cases measures were taken with the aim to close the offer, including inspection of the traders’ premises, warnings and – in some cases – fines.

For non-compliant cross-border offers, administrative assistance was requested via the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation IT system (154 cases) and in case of health concerns notifications were issued via the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (139, of which 51 were notified to US and China).

The objectives of the plan were to encourage Member States to get more engaged in the control of the e-commerce food market, to cooperate more closely on non-compliant cross-border offers and to use for this cooperation the available IT systems.

The main findings of the plan are resumed by DG Sante as follows:

“The high percentage of non-compliant offers is a clear sign that the eCommerce control today needs to be strengthened. In this respect, the Commission has taken a number of actions in order to support Member States’ competent authorities in this new task of eCommerce control, such as:

  • training of staff in online investigations,
  • establishing contact points for cooperation with major trading e-platforms and market places including social media,
  • seeking cooperation with payment service providers and
  • adjusting legislation and electronic reporting systems to the needs of official eCommerce control.

However, further efforts are necessary, in particular to remind the main players of eCommerce such as platforms, payment services and the traders themselves of their responsibilities, to ask for their contributions to increase the safety of online offered foods and to reduce offers which mislead consumers”.

Most probably a second massive coordinate control plan on online offered food will be launched in a near future.

 

Q&A to EU Commission – EU initiatives to tackle food fraud and AAC use

The Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC), originally foreseen by Reg. (EC) No 882/2004, was established under Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2015/1918 of 22 October 2015, as dedicated IT tool to facilitate the exchange of administrative information between national authorities and the Food Fraud Network (FFN), working to combat cross-border violations of food law in Europe.

Waiting for the final review of Reg. (EC) No 882/2004 and for stronger instruments and sanctions to dissuade fraudsters, the Commission was asked to explain to what extend the AAC system is used. The number of cases is limited, as well as users (not yet liaison bodies outside the FFN): the trust in the system seems limited at the moment, possibly because of the high level of secrecy of the information related to this kind of cross-border investigations.

Subject:  EU initiatives to tackle food fraud

On 18 November 2015, the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) system was launched to facilitate cooperation between the Member States in combating cross-border fraudulent practices in the food and feed chain.

Could the Commission indicate how this system has functioned in practice, thus far, to allow for greater cooperation between national authorities?

Could the Commission also give a time frame for the ‘later stage’ when the AAC system will be made available to liaison bodies outside the Food Fraud Network?

Answer given by Mr Andriukaitis on behalf of the Commission – 3rd May 2016

The Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) system provides a platform for cross-border administrative cooperation between national authorities to swiftly exchange information allowing to confirm or exclude the existence of deceptive and fraudulent activities in the food and feed sector and to pursue them across borders. Since it was launched in November 2015, the system was used 54 times for such exchanges of information between Member States.

The Commission is planning on making the system available also to the liaison bodies working on cases of Administrative Assistance and Cooperation not related to fraudulent practices by 2017.

(Source: EU Parliament)