International food and drink fraud investigators have warned that lives are at risk after thousands of tonnes of fake and sub-standard products were seized around the world, including the UK.

A plant making fake brand-name vodka was raided in Derbyshire. Officers discovered more than 20,000 empty bottles ready for filling, hundreds of empty five-litre antifreeze containers which had been used to make the counterfeit alcohol, as well as a reverse osmosis unit used to remove the chemical’s colour and smell. They also seized fake bottle tops, hundreds of unauthorised boxes marked with the brand, and used labels.

An Interpol and Europol-co-ordinated operation over the past two months, Operation Opson IV, seized more than 2,500 tonnes of counterfeit and illicit food, including mozzarella, strawberries, eggs, cooking oil and dried fruit. Checks were carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and industrial estates..

Michael Ellis, head of Interpol’s Trafficking in Illicit Goods and Counterfeiting unit, said: “Fake and sub-standard food and drink pose a real threat to health and safety. People are at serious risk and in some cases dying because of the greed of criminals whose sole concern is to make money.”

Thousands of tonnes of potentially hazardous food and drink had been taken out of circulation, he said.

Chris Vansteenkiste, head of Europol’s Focal Point Copy, who coordinated the activities in Europe, added that this year’s results from Opson clearly reflected the threat that food fraud represented because it affected all types of products and all regions of the world. “Co-operation at national and international level is indispensable to disrupt the criminal gangs involved in this business,” he said.

The warnings reinforce Professor Chris Elliott’s key message into his report into food authenticity last September. Elliott noted at the time that criminals had made threats to regulators inspecting food businesses and he called for a specialist food crime unit to be established in the UK

Other Opson IV seizures included 31 tonnes of seafood sold as fresh in Italy but which had been frozen and doused with a chemical substance containing citric acid, phosphate and hydrogen peroxide to make the catch appear freshly caught.

An unlicensed water bottling plant was shut down in South Sudan, and Egyptian authorities seized 35 tonnes of fake butter and dismantled a factory producing fake tea.