NEW DELHI: In a groundbreaking two-part investigation spanning several EU Member States, law enforcement officials have dismantled a criminal network responsible for reintroducing expired food into the supply chain.
This alarming practice, uncovered within the framework of Europol’s OPSON investigation into the food industry, not only threatens the health and safety of European consumers but also highlights the vulnerabilities in the supply chain exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exploiting the Pandemic-induced Vulnerabilities
Operating under the radar, the criminal network devised a sophisticated scheme to acquire significant quantities of expired food and beverages.
Exploiting vulnerabilities created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the suspects meticulously erased the original expiry dates on the products, replacing them with new ones or even forging entirely new labels. This deceptive relabelling gave the false impression that the packaged food and beverages were fresh and safe for consumption, when in reality, they posed a serious risk to public health.
Arrests Made and Operations Unveiled
Aided by Europol’s coordination, law enforcement officials have arrested 27 individuals involved in this perilous criminal practice. On May 23, 2023, the Lithuanian Police, together with law enforcement agencies from other Member States, conducted a meticulously planned operation, resulting in the dismantling of an organized crime group responsible for reintroducing millions of expired food products into the market.
These criminals, who are also under investigation for large-scale VAT fraud, are estimated to have profited at least EUR 1 million from their food labelling scam.
During the operation, officers executed 70 searches and inspections of warehouses and other locations, seizing equipment used to alter the expiry dates on the products. The confiscated items included household solvents, printers, and labels. The operation successfully prevented over one million food and beverage packages from entering the market, safeguarding unsuspecting consumers.
In a subsequent action day on July 11, 2023, Europol coordinated another operation, this time in Italy. The Italian Carabinieri, supported by the Italian Financial Police, conducted 14 searches, resulting in the arrest of three individuals.
The law enforcement teams seized over 500,000 food and beverage items and equipment used in the criminal activities. Shockingly, many of the seized food items were not only expired but already spoiled, underscoring the potential harm that could have befallen consumers.
Europol’s Crucial Role
Europol played a vital role in identifying this emerging threat during the COVID-19 pandemic and promptly alerted EU Member States by disseminating operational plans. The agency’s specialists discovered a significant connection between the Lithuanian and Italian investigations, emphasizing the extensive reach of this criminal trend. Europol officers actively supported the action days by deploying mobile offices and conducting forensic analysis on-site, further strengthening the successful operations.
Protecting European Consumers
The criminal network’s practice of reintroducing expired food into the supply chain for personal gain is not only morally reprehensible but also endangers the well-being of countless European consumers.
Although this phenomenon has spread across several EU Member States, it is important to note that food producers are not directly involved. Instead, intermediate suppliers and other entities associated with food disposal unwittingly facilitate these criminal activities.
Law enforcement agencies and Europol remain committed to combating such threats, ensuring the safety and well-being of European consumers.
By dismantling criminal networks and coordinating large-scale investigations, they strive to safeguard the integrity of the food supply chain and prevent dangerous products from reaching the hands of unsuspecting individuals.
As investigations continue, it is imperative for authorities to remain vigilant and for consumers to exercise caution when purchasing food and beverages, checking expiry dates and labels to guarantee their safety.
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