A lorry load of counterfeit vodka worth £1m and 22 tonnes of long-grain rice masquerading as Basmati were among the fake foods seized in the UK as part of a major international crackdown on food fraudsters over the past two months.

Interpol and Europol today announced the first results of a joint operation that ran across 33 countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas during December and January. They said Operation Opson III had resulted in the seizure of more than 1,200 tonnes of counterfeit food and nearly 430,000 litres of counterfeit drink.

A full report of what was seized will be published over the next two months, but a spokesman for the Intellectual Property Office – which coordinated the UK portion of Opson III – told The Grocer one key case uncovered in the UK involved a 40-foot lorry load of fake vodka, totalling 17,156 litres and with an estimated street value of £1m and worth £270,000 to the UK Exchequer in duty and VAT.

A second case involved 22 tonnes of standard long-grain rice falsely claiming to be Basmati, he added.

The British Rice Association said it was not aware of the particulars of the 22-tonne Operation Opson seizure but added that white long-grain rice was sometimes falsely declared as brown basmati when it entered the UK. This was done because there is no import duty to be paid on brown basmati, while duty on other types of rice can be around €150 a tonne. Customs officers had been increasingly vigilant for false rice declarations in recent years, a spokesman for the association added.

The IPO expects to announce more details on UK cases unveiled as part of Operation Opson III over the next week or so.

Other key international cases from Operation Opson III include:

  • the discovery of an organised crime network in Italy involved in manufacturing and distributing fake Champagne; material to prepare 60,000 bottles with fake labels was seized at two sites, there people were arrested and 24 reported to the authorities
  • a case in Spain involving the illegal harvesting of 4.5 tonnes of snails from woods and fields, with 24 people detained for illegal work and immigration offences
  • 270 bottles of fake whiskey being found in Bangkok
  • 150,000 fake stock cubes discovered in the Philippines
  • an illegal abattoir found and subsequently shut down on the outskirts of Paris; a spokeswoman for Europol said the case was not related to the horsemeat scandal that rocked Europe in early 2013

“Most people would be surprised at the everyday foods and drink which are being counterfeited, and the volume of seizures shows that this is a serious global problem,” said Michael Ellis, head of Interpol’s Trafficking in Illicit Goods and Counterfeiting unit. “Interpol is committed to turning back this threat to public health and safety by organised criminal networks which are making millions in profits which can then be channelled into other illicit activity such as human and drug trafficking.”

The growing intersection between food fraud and criminal networks was also highlighted in Professor Chris Elliott’s post-Horsegate report on the UK food system, published at the end of last year. “I believe criminal networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits and low risks in this area. The food industry and thus consumers are currently vulnerable,” Elliott said in his report. He also urged the UK to create a dedicated food crime unit to better protect consumers from food criminals.

Across all of Opson III, the food category most heavily implicated – in terms of total tonnage of goods seized – was fish and seafood, accounting for 685 of the 1,200 tonnes seized. This included 484 tonnes of yellow-fun tuna which was found to have insufficient traceability documents; other offences included mislabelling and poor preservation, Europol said.

Paul Williams, CEO of industry organisation Seafish, said integrity was “hugely important” to the industry and the sector was working hard to protect consumers from fraudsters. “Supply chains are complex, but the seafood industry is putting increasing emphasis on traceability and sustainability and is getting better at understanding its supply chain.”

“Whilst there are clearly still incidents of food fraud, the UK seafood industry is increasingly working together to maintain standards and drive towards a more transparent supply chain.”

‘Fake foods’ in West Yorkshire

News of Operation Opson III comes as mislabelling was back in the headlines in the UK this week, following a report about mislabelled food found by Trading Standards in West Yorkshire.

The report sparked ‘fake food’ headlines suggesting a third of food in the UK was mislabelled, but experts have pointed out West Yorkshire’s sampling was targeted and not random, and its results did therefore not suggest there were labelling problems with a third of all food.

The labelling offences reported by West Yorkshire also included a significant number of offences that do not fit the ‘fake food’ definition, including excess salt and sodium levels, and Eastern European foods without any English-language labelling.

For more on the West Yorkshire findings, read Why ‘fake’ foods do not add up to a major new scandal