The International Criminal Police Organization, better known as INTERPOL, has seized approximately 11,000 U.S. tons of counterfeit foods as part of a joint effort with the European Police Office, or Europol. The initiative, in its fifth year, brought in a record haul, seizing “foods” like monkey meat, locusts and caterpillars, as well as fake alcohol, the agency said.
The seizures were part of an undertaking bearing the code name Operation Opson V. It took place between November 2015 and February 2016 and operated in 57 countries. The foods confiscated ranged from counterfeit luxury items to stomach-churning mystery meats, and even items tainted by such pollutants as fertilizer.
If this sounds like a bizarre, one-off offense, it’s not. According to Europol, it’s an established enterprise. Worse yet, it may be a sign of the times.
“Today’s rising food prices and the global nature of the food chain offer the opportunity for criminals to sell counterfeit and substandard food in a multi-billion criminal industry which can pose serious potential health risks to unsuspecting customers,” said Chris Vansteenkiste, Cluster Manager of the Intellectual Property Crime Team at Europol.
So what’s out there, exactly? And how much do you need to worry that your delicious cheeseburger contains ground Anthropopithecus?
According to INTERPOL, the items seized included fake alcoholic beverages, as well as the means to disguise them as the real thing.
Authorities said three factories used to produce counterfeit alcohol were discovered in Greece, along with equipment and materials used to manufacture the bottles and labels necessary to make them indistinguishable from the genuine article. Police also discovered more than 7,400 bottles full of the fake beverage, apparently ready to take their places on liquor store shelves.
U.K. authorities seized over 2,600 gallons of fake vodka, whiskey and wine. 1,300 bottles of fake whiskey were seized in Zambia, while over 9,500 gallons of illegal alcohol were seized in Burundi, where rifles, ammunition and grenades were also found. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, police uncovered thousands of sardine cans with fake labels affixed to them, all bearing the name of a legitimate Peruvian brand.
Africa was also the intended destination for counterfeit candies and non-alcoholic wine that was discovered in such countries as Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and Romania.
“Unfit for human consumption”
The items confiscated also included illegal beef, buffalo meat and 26 tons of imported tilapia that INTERPOL described as “unfit for human consumption.” All of it was intended for sale in supermarkets.
Other items confiscated were downright bizarre, such as 24 pounds of locusts and 44 pounds of caterpillars seized in France, as well as an undisclosed amount of monkey meat seized at Belgium’s Zaventem airport by customs officials. However, as unusual as these items are, they didn’t pose the threat to human safety as others.
Approximately 10 tons of counterfeit sugar was seized in Khartoum, Sudan, all of it contaminated with fertilizer. Meanwhile, Italian officials confiscated over 94 tons of olives that had been artificially colored with a copper sulphate solution.
There were also peanuts that had been labeled as pine nuts, posing a risk of fatal anaphylaxis to those who are allergic and might eat them unwittingly.
Indonesian officials seized 154 pounds of chicken intestines preserved in formalin, better known stateside as formaldehyde. While this compound is indeed ideal for embalming a cadaver, it’s forbidden as a food additive, as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has found that “ingestion of as little as 30 mL (1 oz.) of a solution containing 37% formaldehyde has been reported to cause death in an adult.”
The substances confiscated weren’t just limited to food and drink. South Korean police arrested a man allegedly smuggling weight loss pills, which were being falsely sold on the Internet as all-natural. According to INTERPOL, these supplements had generated sales of $170,000 in less than a year.
Authorities have been trying to stem the tide of counterfeit foods for some time.
A 2010 study conducted by the University of California, Davis found that the product labeled “extra virgin olive oil” on California supermarket shelves “did not meet international and US standards” in 70% of cases. In January, CBS’ “60 Minutes” reported that criminal organizations in Italy run a $16-billion-a-year business creating and selling phony cheese, olive oil and wine, and have earned the name “Agromafia” as a result.
If you’re waiting for U.S. authorities to intervene and bring these criminal parties to justice, David Neuman, CEO of the Greek olive oil company Gaea North America, said in an interview with the food publication Eater that you shouldn’t hold your breath.
“Neither the FDA nor the USDA are worried about stopping this, it’s too big of an issue,” he said. “They’re worried about food safety, tainted meat..they’re not worried about the wrong label on olive oil, it’s not high enough on the radar.”
Be that as it may, INTERPOL’s Michael Ellis clearly feels differently, and said that the agency’s work in this area will continue, no matter what the product may be.
“Fake and dangerous food and drink threaten the health and safety of people around the world,” he said. “We must continue to build on these efforts to identify the criminal networks behind this activity whose only concern is making a profit, no matter what the cost to the public.”
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.