Authorities in Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium have provided more details of their roles in an international operation focused on potentially dangerous food and beverages.

Operation Opson IX, coordinated by Europol and Interpol, ran from December 2019 to June 2020.  More than $40 million worth of food and drink was seized including 12,000 tons of illegal and harmful products.

The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) revealed that German authorities uncovered manipulation of olive oil and issues with declaration of natural vanilla in food.

In olive oil thought to be extra virgin, the highest quality level, inferior oils such as lampante oil were found. In foodstuffs such as ice cream and desserts, investigators found inexpensive, synthetically produced flavoring substances instead of natural vanilla.

Olive oil and vanilla fraud
Operation Opson brought together 11 European countries to investigate olive oil fraud. From the beginning of January to end of March, German food surveillance authorities checked more than 3,694 liters of extra virgin olive oil, which must meet certain quality criteria.

In 83 controls, olive oil advertised as extra virgin was examined for possible adulteration with other grades of olive oil such as virgin, refined or lampante oil. It was also tested to see if cheaper sunflower, rapeseed or soybean oil was added, dyed and sold as olive oil.

Irregularities were detected in around a quarter of cases. The 19 problematic samples came from wholesalers, importers and exporters, bottling plants, retailers and the catering trade.

Authorities also tested products containing vanilla to uncover misleading and fraudulent practices such as replacing the advertised real vanilla with synthetically produced vanillin. In the 208 controls 36 non-compliances were found including replacement of natural vanilla with the inexpensive artificial flavoring ethyl vanillin.

The Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office in Switzerland and Austrian Food Safety Agency (AGES) also focused national controls on products containing vanilla. Swiss officials reported two abnormal findings out of 20 tests.

In seven cases, affecting olive oil and vanilla, reports were created in the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation Food Fraud system as a final assessment needed further checks by manufacturers and suppliers abroad. This IT system allows EU countries to contact one another and share information which can lead to administrative actions and sanctions or judicial proceedings. Two cases were also forwarded to the public prosecutor.

Italian wine crackdown and Spain’s horse meat focus
The Italian NAS Carabinieri were part of operations in the olive oil and wine sectors, targeted actions on milk and dairy product fraud and looking into counterfeiting and falsification of horse passports for marketing of horse meat from animals not intended for human consumption.

These investigations involved 1,647 companies, which led to 85 judicial police investigations and 312 administrative proceedings as well as seizure of 850,000 kilograms and liters of food and drink worth more than $4.7 million. The horse meat operation included 59 passports being seized.

Police in Florence investigated counterfeit wine of domestic and foreign origin. Original empty bottles were filled with wines of different origin and lower quality, followed by sealing with counterfeit caps and fake packaging attached. Products were marketed mainly using online auction platform eBay, on domestic and foreign markets including Spain, Germany, Belgium, France and the United States.

Horse meat

The Guardia Civil in Spain took part in 3,000 controls and inspections in distribution centers, warehouses, transport, containers and warehouses as well as ports and airports. This led to 19 people being arrested and 40 investigated.

Fraud detected in 2020 includes falsification of documents on lamb of French origin sold with a protected geographical indication of Castilla y León, production of wines adulterated with sugars and national distribution of pizzas from a place that did not have the required hygienic conditions.

SEPRONA of Barcelona has arrested 15 people and investigated another 13 for alleged crimes against public health and documentary falsification. More than 10,000 horses have been looked at in livestock farms and slaughterhouses in Barcelona for suspected falsified passports that classed them as meat fit for human consumption and more than 300 horses already slaughtered were found not to comply with regulations. A total of 185 passports were seized that had indications of forgery. This operation is still open at national and European level.

Tampering with horse traceability documents
The Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) in Belgium led a project with the Netherlands supported by DG Sante to help national authorities fight against sales of illegal horse meat.

The operation enabled document checks for 157,000 horses from eight countries and around 117 tons of horse meat. Live animals and more than 17 tons of horse meat were seized in several EU slaughterhouses. Inspections of slaughterhouses in several countries showed around 20 percent of foreign passports used for these horses had signs of tampering.

In Belgium, 20 controls were carried out, including four in slaughterhouses. More than 300 passports and horses were screened with 88 percent of these compliant. A total of 28 forged passports were identified and 13 concerned false identities.

The main purpose of falsification is to introduce horses excluded from the food chain into the supply chain by fraudulently modifying this status via their passports. These horses were potentially able to receive a drug treatment reserved for animals excluded from the food chain.

In total, 86 horses without passports and coming from several EU countries were checked via their microchip. Following these checks, 13 files were opened by FASFC and 12 health seizures made. A truck used to transport horses with forged identifications was seized during one of the controls.

In 2019, 5,584 horses were checked at the slaughterhouse as part of normal daily surveillance, and more than 98 percent were compliant.

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