Review of INTERPOL / EUROPOL Operation OPSON IX Final Report (global food fraud investigations)

While the thousands of tons of seized fraudulent product get the headlines, the most crucial result of Operation OPSON is the insight on the shifting food fraud vulnerability. The report has both general information and detailed case studies (and amazing crime scene pictures).

INTERPOL/ EUROPOL Operation OPSON IX was conducted from December 2019 and extended beyond the expected end date of April 2020 to June 2020. The next OPSON X debrief occurred in November 2021 (a future blog post will review that private meeting, and our presentation on “Food Fraud Prevention – Priority Setting to Reduce the Overall Fraud Opportunity”.) The final Operation Opson IX – Analysis Report was published in January 2021.

Overview of Operation OPSON

What is INTERPOL/ EUROPOL Operation OPSON? Operation OPSON is a joint INTERPOL/ EUROPOL activity that coordinates global law enforcement groups targeting food fraud. The broad “food fraud” scope is a refinement of the first OPSON scope of “Counterfeit food and beverages” and “Substandard food and beverages.” The eleventh year of the operation was started in November 2021. The specific goals are:

  • Protecting public health;
  • Fighting against organized crime groups involved in the trade of fake and substandard food;
  • Enhancing international cooperation;
  • Enhancing national cooperation between LEAs and food regulatory agencies; and
  • Enhancing cooperation with private partners from the food and beverage industry.

Why do INTERPOL and EUROPOL lead it? The first Operation OPSON started in 2010 and was funded under the five-year INTERPOL special projects funding. There has been so much momentum as the member countries expanded from ten in 2010 to seventy-seven in 2021 (which was down due to the resources stresses of the COVID pandemic.) The INTERPOL and EUROPOL missions and international scope are ideal for this coordinated activity. Borders do not constrain the fraudsters (and often use cross-border operations to hide their illegal activities), so the law enforcement activity must also be transnational. “During the operational phase, INTERPOL and Europol performed crosschecks against their databases and coordinated the dissemination of intelligence to support on-going actions. The INTERPOL Command and Coordination Centre (CCC) provided round-the-clock support. The operational center supported OPSON IX at Europol Headquarters during the entire operational phase. At the end of the operational phase, participating countries sent all available results to INTERPOL and Europol for analysis.”

Review of Operation OPSON IX Results

Operation Statistics: OPSON IX continued an incredible impact on seizures and arrests. “More than USD 40 million worth of potentially dangerous fake food and drink was seized in the latest Operation OPSON, which also saw the disruption of 19 organized crime groups and the arrest of 407 individuals worldwide. […] Operation OPSON IX, coordinated by INTERPOL and Europol, saw more than 12,000 tons of illegal and potentially harmful items recovered from shops, markets, and during transport checks. Police, customs, national food regulatory authorities, and private sector partners in 77 countries took part in the operation.”

More Expired Foods: An interesting trend is an increase in expired foods. “Seizures of expired food items or where the expiry dates had been altered were significantly higher than during previous OPSON operations – possibly a sign of criminals capitalizing on the disruption of food supply chains caused by national lockdowns. “As countries around the world continue their efforts to contain COVID-19, the criminal networks distributing these potentially dangerous products show only their determination to make a profit.”

Food Crime and IPR Counterfeiting Violations – a small percentage: The intellectual property right (IPR) counterfeit violations were more of a focus for OPSON IX with an increase from usually 1-3% to 8% of the overall seizures. The growth could be the impact beyond trademarks to protected designated origins (PDOs, or region or country of origin).

Increase in animal products and feed: “At more than 5,000 tons, animal products were the top seizures during this year’s OPSON operation.”

Food Documentation Fraud – Fraudulent Horse Passports: “A new trend discovered in Europe was the falsification of horse ‘passports’: in one case, horses transported into Italy using fake documents claiming they were to take place in sports competitions were in fact sent to a slaughterhouse.” (See our Food Fraud Insight Report on The Risk of Document Fraud in the Food Supply Chain.)

Food Fraudsters Trading in more than just Food: While the investigation focused on food products, the data reinforces that the criminals are not focused on food safety. During the food enforcement activities, many non-food products were also seized. “Highlighting the criminal links between different types of counterfeit items, authorities also discovered thousands of fake medical products, including disinfectants and some 17,000 false COVID-19 testing kits. […] In addition to the fake food and drink, other illicit products recovered included cosmetics, footwear, clothing, handbags, car parts, electronics, tobacco, and medicines, worth an estimated USD 3.1 million.”

…AND… don’t forget that there are some fantastic publicly-released case studies that include crime scene pictures:

  • Ecuador: “Road checks in Ecuador led to seizures of non-alcoholic beverages (energy drinks), vegetables,  fruits and legumes and also yeast. Private vehicles transported the merchandise originated abroad, and the drivers could not provide any documents of origin for the goods transported.”
  • Eswatini: “In Eswatini, the controls carried out at the borders during OPSON IX revealed counterfeit alcohol, especially whiskey and vodka, and counterfeit condiments. In all cases, the actors involved were locals, with international connections.”
  • Eritrea: “Following inter-agency planning and operational cooperation, the authorities in Eritrea have carried out searches in several locations, especially in a local port for containers transporting food products and warehouses storing such goods.”
  • Portugal: “The Economic and Food Safety Authority (ASAE) in Portugal, through the Southern Regional Unit, under the actions framed in OPSON IX, held on February 7, 2020, a surveillance operation directed to an illegal warehouse with storage of Live Bivalve Mollusks (clams).”
  • South Africa: “During the checks, the authorities seized more than 6,000 liters of alcohol transported by sea containers. The alcohol had a foreign origin, and most of the products were traditional Asian alcoholic beverages, which were intended for illegal importation into South Africa.”
  • Spain – Operation Babieca18: “During the period between May 2018 and January 2020, the SEPRONA of Barcelona carried out an investigation into a criminal organization that sold horsemeat not suitable for human consumption to those whose their identification documentation was falsified and later introduced to the food chain, proceeding to the arrest of 17 targets and the investigation of another 13.”

While it is important to understand both the results and the direction of global law enforcement, there is much more to be learned. This OPSON IX report provides tremendous insight for anyone interested in food fraud prevention. We can learn from the Operation OPSON members who have used the insight for not only more efficiently catching food fraud but  also to expand their intelligence analysis techniques to reduce the overall fraud opportunity. Further, the operation members are starting to fully implement country-level food fraud prevention strategies. I’m personally excited to see “what’s next.”

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