Another three people have been arrested in the second phase of an investigation into expired food being reintroduced into the supply chain.
Measures were taken against the trio this month. The operation involved Europol, France, Germany, Spain, and the Carabinieri NAS of Turin, and Italian Financial Police (Guardia di Finanza). It was under the umbrella of Operation Opson, an annual effort to combat food and drink counterfeit.
Law enforcement officials conducted 14 searches including private homes and commercial sites in six regions and seized more than 500,000 food and drink items as well as equipment used by the suspected criminals. Many of these items were expired and already spoiled, highlighting the potential harm to consumers, according to Europol.
The alleged criminal network collected expired or expiring food and beverages for little or no cost and replaced the shelf life dates with new ones to enable their resale. After reintroducing these items into the supply chain, gains were made at the expense of consumers. There is no involvement of food producers but intermediate suppliers or other entities working in food disposal were involved.
Investigations started in March 2022 when the Carabinieri NAS of Turin found a confectionery at a retailer in the city of Novara that lacked commercial documentation and had an expiry date which was later found to be counterfeit. Further work revealed products that came from another company, also located in the Novara area.
This past October, officials seized several tons of food from a warehouse in Novara, which was valued at €1 million ($1.1 million). It had already been relabeled and was ready for sale, despite the items being expired.
The first action day in May involved Estonia, France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, Europol, and Eurojust.
This led to the arrest of 24 people in Lithuania. About 70 searches of warehouses and other locations were carried out. Officers uncovered equipment for altering expiry dates. This includes household solvents, printers and labels. More than 1 million food and beverage packages were found and prevented from entering the market.
Exploiting vulnerabilities in the supply chain initially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, suspects started acquiring expired food and beverages. They would then chemically erase the date printed on each item and reprint a new one. In other cases, a new label was forged and applied, giving the impression that food or beverages were still fresh and safe for consumption.
Actively since early 2021, the organized crime group is believed to have purchased large amounts of expired food products and other perishable goods from Germany and France. They changed the dates on products and supplied them to the Lithuanian market, where they were bought by thousands of consumers.
The gang, which is also under investigation for VAT fraud, is believed to have made at least €1 million ($1.1 million) in profits from the food labeling scam. A link connecting the Lithuanian and Italian investigations was found by Europol specialists.
In June, the State Food and Veterinary Service (VMVT) in Lithuania reported that 50 inspections had been carried out and the activities of 14 food processing firms had been “restricted.” The supply of more than 220 tons of food products to the market was blocked. Seized items include sweets, non-alcoholic drinks, popcorn, crackers, waffles and lollipops which are popular among children.
VMVT also selected several products to be tested for Listeria, Salmonella and Ochratoxin A but all samples were satisfactory.
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