Earlier this month, a French winemaker was left with an almighty hangover after being jailed for two years and fined €8 million for mixing high-end Saint-Émilions, Pomerols and Listrac-Médocs with cheap plonk and proceeding to sell it to some of the country’s biggest retailers as the genuine article. Francois-Marie Marret and his associates sold their so-called “moon wines” to large supermarket chains including Intermarché and Auchan, fraudulently pocketing nearly €800,000 before they were caught by customs officials.
The case was the latest to highlight the growing problem of food and drink fraud, which involves dishonest producers and organised criminals selling food and drink products that are either mislabelled, or unfit for human consumption. It has been suggested organised crime gangs across Europe are increasingly turning to food fraud in greater numbers, due to the fact that it carries a lower risk than other illegal activities such as drug trafficking and people smuggling.
Many gangsters have got wise to the fact that watering down goats’ milk, selling mislabelled extra virgin olive oil or setting up fake alcohol factories offers a better risk/reward ratio than crimes more traditionally associated with organised illegality, in spite of the sentence handed down to Monsieur Marret.
For many in Europe, food fraud first entered popular consciousness during the 2013 horse meat scandal, which began when food inspectors discovered that multiple products in major European supermarkets purporting to contain more expensive meats were actually either wholly or partly made up of horse. The scandal led to the withdrawal of millions of products across the continent after mislabelled meat was found in the supply chains of food retailers in the UK, France, the Republic of Ireland, Norway, Germany, Sweden and other countries.
The fact that there has not been any comparable scandals on the same scale over the intervening years does not mean the problem has gone away. Far from it. Evidence suggests food fraud has been on the rise, forcing many EO governments to set up food fraud reporting systems, such as England’s Food Crime Confidential initiative, which encourages businesses and members of the public to report any food or drink products they suspect are not what they should be.
In October, Europol published a report with partner organisation Interpol on a recent crackdown on food fraudsters around the globe. Over a four-month period, Operation OPSON V saw the two agencies seize more than 11,000 tonnes of food and 1,440,000 litres of beverages in 57 countries, making the probe the largest of its kind in history.
The operation revealed that condiments are the most faked food category on the planet, representing 66% of all products seized. One scam uncovered in Italy involved fraudsters mislabelling inferior olive oil as extra virgin, confirming the findings of a 2015 Italian customs agency investigation that found seven of the country’s biggest oil producers had attempted to do the same.
Fruits and vegetables were the second-most faked category, accounting for 15% of seized goods. The operation revealed a new form of fraud in which criminals use copper sulphate and similar substances to colour fruit. This method allows crooked producers to sell older produce they would otherwise have had to throw away, such as olives from a previous year’s harvest. More than 526 tonnes of copper sulphate-treated olives were confiscated during the probe.
Confirming what Monsieur Marret’s case suggests, Operation OPSON V also found that alcohol remains a commonly-faked product, with more than 385,000 litres of counterfeit booze seized as part of the investigation. Although there are health risks attached to consuming any food or drink that has not been produced in line with internationally-recognised standards, drinking fake alcohol can be particularly dangerous, in some cases leading to blindness or even death.
A July 2016 report from the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) revealed that the EU loses €1.3 billion every year due to fake spirits and wine. The study found that 3.3% of all sales of wines and spirits are lost to counterfeiters annually, costing 23,300 direct and indirect jobs.
As the 2013 horse meat scandal demonstrated, buying your groceries from large well-established retailers will not necessarily protect you from products that have been tainted by food fraud. Big retailers promised to clean up their acts after the scandal was uncovered, but the fact that supermarkets stock such a wide range of products makes it very difficult for them to be aware of everything that takes place in their supply chains. Some smaller businesses simply do not have the resources to monitor theirs at all.
With global food prices on the rise, the incentive for dishonest food producers and organised crime groups to counterfeit food and drink products is not going away, regardless of the potential risk to consumers’ health and despite the best efforts of law enforcement agencies such as Interpol and Europol. As such, it’s highly likely that criminals will continue to commit considerable resources to getting around the checks and balances put in place to make sure the food on your table comes from where its producers claim it does.