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Toasting with Caution

You’re probably familiar with the saying: “You are what you eat.” And for consumers, trusting that the grocery store they go to, the restaurant they eat at, or the liquor store they frequent is providing food and alcohol that’s safe to consume is critical.

Unfortunately, the food and beverage supply chain is not always secure. Sometimes, tampered products make their way into it—wreaking havoc. Between April and May 2020, more than 100 Mexicans died after drinking adulterated alcohol following a ban on liquor sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ban created a black market for liquor, and some criminals brewed moonshine tainted with methanol—a wood alcohol that when consumed by humans can cause liver damage, blindness, or death.

“Mexico’s consumer watchdog has issued repeated warnings over the dangers of adulterated alcohol, which is often peddled in nightclubs and tourist spots with all-you-can-drink promotions,” according to The Guardian. “An association of small merchants warned last year that 36 percent of all liquor sold in the country was either contraband or adulterated.”

Tainted alcohol, however, is not a new problem. In 2018, the World Health Organization said that counterfeit and illegal alcohol is becoming more common and a growing health concern. INTERPOL has classified it as a top concern globally, with counterfeit wine representing a billion-dollar market and Europe placing wine and spirits in the top five sectors for lost sales.

Counterfeit and illegal alcohol is becoming more common and a growing health concern.

To help address this problem, Europol and INTERPOL have coordinated since 2011 to stand up operation OPSON—an international law enforcement operation that targets trafficking of counterfeit and substandard food and beverage.

In OPSON X, which ran from December 2020 to June 2021, law enforcement authorities from 72 countries seized 15,451 tons of illicit products valued at about €53.8 million. They also issued 663 arrest warrants and disrupted 42 criminal networks.

“Counterfeit and substandard food and beverage can be found both on the physical market and sold online,” said Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle in a statement. “The increased health risk for consumers is proportional to the reduced quality of raw materials used in the food processing system.”

She added that Europol has seen a recent development of low-quality products infiltrating the food supply chain, an evolution possibly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With more than 15,000 tons of illegal products seized, operation OPSON X illustrates the importance cooperation between national authorities and the private sector in protecting consumers’ rights and the quality of the products we put on our tables,” De Bolle said.

One popular scheme included the adulteration of acholic beverages, where criminal networks would use colorant to change the quality of beverages—including 47,660 liters of whiskey. During OPSON X, authorities seized 1.7 million liters of wine, beer, and alcoholic beverages that were negatively affected.

The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) played a major role in these operations because alcohol counterfeiting is a serious threat to consumers, Europol said.

“OLAF once again played a leading role in one of the key actions under Operation OPSON, focused on illicit wine and alcohol,” said OLAF Director General Ville Itälä in a statement. “The risks posed by these products to EU citizens and businesses are very real, and OLAF is proud to have worked hand-in-hand with Europol and national customs and police authorities in identifying, trafficking, and stopping the counterfeiters and fraudsters in this important part of the food and drink sector.”

The increased health risk for consumers is proportional to the reduced quality of raw materials used in the food processing system.

Another major component of Operation OPSON X involved the takedown of criminal networks that were adulterating honey in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“Fake honey has been in circulation since the 1970s when high-fructose corn syrup became widely available,” according to Europol. “To increase volumes and illegal profits, criminals add much cheaper corn syrup and sugarcane to genuine honey. This activity affects the market, which becomes inundated with counterfeits that are priced much lower than the genuine product. Consequently, beekeepers are forced to gradually lower the prices of genuine products. This can endanger their activities, leading them to decrease production as well as the bee populations that they maintain.”

During the course of OPSON X, authorities made 495 checks to ultimately discover 51,000 kilograms of fraudulently treated honey.

“Removing such an enormous quantity of illegal and often dangerous products from the market is a concrete example of how international police cooperation is making the world a safer place,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock in a statement. “Food crime may not always seem like a top policing priority, but operations like OPSON X demonstrate the massive profits these products generate, which can then fund other organized crime activities.”

Megan Gates is editor-in-chief of Security Technology. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @mgngates.