Food fraud is a bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - TIM BOU­QUET

The small pack­age weighed just five kilo­grams and had been sent f rom China. The im­port declarat ion stuck to the out­side stated that it con­tained potas­sium car­bon­ate, a chem­i­cal used in bak­ing. When Dutch cus­toms of­fi­cers opened it they sus­pected the white pow­der was co­caine. But lab tests re­vealed some­thing quite dif­fer­ent, yet equally sin­is­ter: the sub­stance was 17-beta oestra­diol, a growth hor­mone, banned in the Euro­pean Union al­most 30 years ago, to bulk up cat­tle.

This small quan­tity of pow­der, worth € 75,000 (A$120,000), was enough to dose 250,000 calves and en­dan­ger Europe’s food chain. Sci­en­tists de­scribe it as ‘a com­plete car­cino­gen’. Never be­fore had so much of this banned sub­stance been found in the Nether­lands.

It was time to call in spe­cial­ist food fraud de­tec­tives from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion di­vi­sion of the Nether­lands’ food and con­sumer prod­uct safety au­thor­ity – known as the NVWA-IOD.

In their high-se­cu­rity of­fices, the NVWA- IOD’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors have a heavy work­load. In one of the com­puter rooms, banks of screens buzz as de­tec­tives an­a­lyse in­tel­li­gence re­ports, covert video and wire­tap tran­scripts.

One of these in­spec­tors is 39-yearold Karen Gus­sow. “We have ex­actly the same pow­ers of ar­rest, sur­veil­lance and in­tel­li­gence gather­ing as the ­po­lice,” she says. “The only dif­fer­ence is that we don’t carry guns.”

None­the­less, as Gus­sow points out, food fraud is a deadly busi­ness. “All the re­search shows that even small residues of growth hor­mone in beef can trig­ger can­cers.” And chil­dren are par­tic­u­larly at risk.

“We went to the Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tor to ask if we could re­place the con­tents of the sus­pect pack­age with ac­tual bak­ing pow­der,” says Gus­sow. “He also gave us per­mis­sion to add track­ing and bug­ging de­vices and we re­turned it to the par­cel de­liv­ery sys­tem.”

Covert Sur­veil­lance

The pack­age was duly de­liv­ered to a lo­gis­tics cen­tre in north­ern Nether­lands, where the food de­tec­tives had set up a covert sur­veil­lance cam­era. In the gather­ing gloom of a late ­Novem­ber af­ter­noon, a 69-yearold man ar­rived to col­lect the pack­age, un­aware that seven in­ves­ti­ga­tors in un­marked cars were watch­ing. He then drove 85 kilo­me­tres south and checked into a four-star ho­tel.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors lis­tened in from a nearby po­lice sta­tion as the sus­pect made a se­ries of calls on sev­eral ­mo­bile phones. He was about to pass the pack­age on. As he had din­ner that even­ing, two de­tec­tives were sit­ting at an ad­join­ing ta­ble.

When the han­dover failed to take place, the food de­tec­tives stormed his room and ar­rested him. The sus­pect, who can­not be named for le­gal rea­sons, told them that he had a bona fide com­pany mak­ing ve­teri­nary drugs. But it proved to be just a front. In 2016 he was sen­tenced to 18 months.

“Not only did he get his pack­age, he got us too!” says Gus­sow with a wry smile.

A Bor­der­less Crime

Food fraud is boom­ing glob­ally. In terms of money gen­er­ated, it is as prof­itable as drug run­ning and hu­man traf­fick­ing. It takes sev­eral forms that, un­like banned growth hor­mone, di­rectly af­fect con­sumers.

“Crim­i­nals adul­ter­ate prod­ucts, such as cheap wine with pure al­co­hol, or beef with horse­meat, pay­ing no heed to the safety of con­sumers, and then pass them off as qual­ity

prod­ucts to se­cure max­i­mum profit,” says de­tec­tive Chris Vansteenkiste.

This square-jawed, 54-year- old Bel­gian leads the In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty Crime Unit of Europol (the EU Agency for Law En­force­ment Co­op­er­a­tion), which co­or­di­nates in­di­vid­ual na­tional anti-food fraud op­er­a­tions.

“Somet imes crim­i­nals falsi fy coun­try- of- ori­gin doc­u­men­ta­tion, or in­ac­cu­rately claim that prod­ucts are or­ganic,” he says. “They ap­ply fake bar­codes and sell-by dates on sub-stan­dard food that is un­fit for hu­man con­sump­tion. By and large, con­sumers trust what they eat and, whether it’s fish, eggs, herbs or ice cream, the fake pack­ag­ing is con­vinc­ing enough to part them with their cash.”

But the fight­back is on. Since 2011, Europol and its in­ter­na­tional coun­ter­part In­ter­pol have led an an­nual global op­er­a­tion to com­bat food crime. Called Op­er­a­tion OPSON, it be­gan small with ten coun­tries par­tic­i­pat­ing. By 2017, OPSON had grown to in­clude 65 na­tions.

“Ev­ery­thing that can be pro­duced can be coun­ter­feited,” says Chris Vansteenkiste, who co­or­di­nated the OPSON op­er­a­tion last year from ­Europol’s im­pos­ing head­quar­ters in The Hague. “Every sec­tor is touched.”

In Por­tu­gal, a sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tion by the coun­try’s food safety au­thor­ity re­vealed that a food-pro­cess­ing fac­tory in Porto, which had been stripped of its li­cence, was still op­er­at­ing.

“When in­ves­ti­ga­tors went in, they found un­hy­gienic vats of sar­dines and other fish that were un­fit for hu­man con­sump­tion. There were 300,000 cans and 24,000 la­bels with fake bar­codes and con­sump­tion dates show­ing the fish was des­tined for ex­port


through­out Europe,” says Vansteenkiste. “The con­di­tions were dis­gust­ing. The smell was unimag­in­able – no con­cern for hu­man safety at all.”

In Italy, the anti-Mafia unit moved in on a re­mote farm in the Tus­can coun­try­side. In­side the farm build­ings, cara­binieri (po­lice) found cases of vin­tage wines from Italy’s premier vine­yards. The bot­tles looked gen­uine, as did the corks and the la­bels, but lab tests re­vealed they con­tained low-qual­ity wine to which pure al­co­hol had been added to swell vol­ume and prof­its.

“This was a highly pro­fes­sional op­er­a­tion con­ducted by an or­gan­ised crime group,” says Vansteenkiste. “We also seized print­ing and other equip­ment which they used to fake bar­codes and wa­ter­marks.” Three peo­ple were ar­rested and fur­ther pros­e­cu­tions are pend­ing.

Op­erat ion OPSON re­veals the ubiq­ui­tous na­ture of food fraud: 179,000 fake sea­son­ing cubes were seized by French cus­toms; un­la­beled meat smug­gled in an un­re­frig­er­ated van was in­ter­cepted in Ire­land; 1300 kilo­grams of roasted hazel­nuts were found to con­tain al­ler­genic peanuts in Ger­many; vir­gin olive oil in Den­mark was re­vealed to be un­re­fined lam­pante oil, which is un­fit for hu­man con­sump­tion.

In a 12-month pe­riod, three ma­jor or­gan­ised crime groups in Europe were taken out of ac­tion and seven more glob­ally.

Deadly Con­se­quences

The fight against food fraud goes on around the clock. Most coun­tries in Europe have es­tab­lished food crime units sim­i­lar to the Nether­lands’ NVWA-IOD, which has been hunt­ing down crim­i­nals for 20 years. Europol sup­ports this by run­ning work­shops for com­pa­nies, in­ves­ti­ga­tors and pol­icy mak­ers to strengthen net­works across Europe and share in­tel­li­gence,

while its Crim­i­nal As­sets Bu­reau con­fis­cates crim­i­nal cash and as­sets.

“In­ter­nat ional gangs are mov­ing away from run­ning drugs and firearms [and mov­ing] into il­licit trade be­cause the re­wards are great, and if they do get caught they have less chance of go­ing to prison for 20 years,” says Michael El­lis, a food crime con­sul­tant who un­til 2016 man­aged In­ter­pol’s il­licit trade and anti-coun­ter­feit crime direc­torate.

“That’s why we need in­ter­na­tional co­or­di­na­tion to stop them. More and more gov­ern­ments and en­force­ment agen­cies have re­alised that this is not a vic­tim­less crime. It is harm­ing so­ci­eties, harm­ing economies and, frankly, killing peo­ple.”

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO), the Czech Repub­lic, Poland, Nor­way and Es­to­nia are among a group of coun­tries plagued by deaths and or­gan dam­age from al­co­hol con­tain­ing methanol. WHO re­ports that “the size of these out­breaks ranges from 20 to over 800 vic­tims with fa­tal­ity rates of over 30 per cent.”

Methanol, a cheap al­co­hol used in in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions and an­tifreeze, is highly toxic when in­gested. Dozens died in a spate of poi­son­ings in the Czech Repub­lic in 2012 that were at­trib­uted to vodka and rum tainted with methanol and sold at mar­kets and kiosks.

The Ap­pli­ance of Science

The chal­lenges fac­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors are com­pounded by the com­plex­ity of to­day’s food sup­ply chain.

“We don’t know any­more where what we eat comes from,” says Pro­fes­sor Chris El­liott, who in 2013 founded the In­sti­tute for Global Food


Se­cu­rity at Queen’s Univer­sity Belfast in North­ern Ire­land.

Its cut­ting- edge lab­o­ra­tory can an­a­lyse the molec­u­lar fin­ger­print of food against a li­brary of thou­sands of species pro­files col­lected by El­liott’s team from all over the world. It holds 2000 sam­ples of rice alone.

Be­hind steel, bomb-proofed doors that pro­tect the out­side world from the tox­ins they work on, El­liott’s team of 40 fo­cuses on de­vel­op­ing anti-food fraud tech­nolo­gies for use by gov­ern­ment agen­cies and in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

“Many ready meals con­tain up to 50 in­gre­di­ents, and food sup­ply chains are so com­plex that each

trans­ac­tion, from farm or ocean to mar­ket stall or su­per­mar­ket shelf, is an op­por­tu­nity for a crim­i­nal,” says El­liott. “Track­ing and trac­ing them all is where we come in.”

Take fish, one of El­liott’s favourite top­ics. Nor­we­gian and Rus­sian fac­tory ships re­move the heads and guts from the fish they catch, which are then frozen, sent to China, thawed, fil­leted by cheap labour, re-frozen into large blocks and shipped to South Korea. “There, they have cold stores the size of foot­ball sta­di­ums and the traders come to buy,” says El­liott. “They in turn sell on to other traders, who sell them to re­tail­ers.

“In a jour­ney of thou­sands of miles there is am­ple op­por­tu­nity for crim­i­nals to bulk up fil­lets with salty wa­ter, sub­sti­tute species, or la­bel bulk catch as line caught.

“Su­per­mar­ket chains put a lot of ef­fort into se­cur­ing their sup­ply chains and do their own test­ing, but noth­ing can be 100 per cent ef­fec­tive.

“I have been threat­ened be­cause of the work we do. Where or­gan­ised crime is in play, such as the Mafia’s in­volve­ment in adul­ter­ated olive oil, there is al­ways a risk, be­cause wher­ever you look for fraud you will find it.”

Stiffer Sen­tences

But are sen­tences tough enough? Off the record, there is a re­sound­ing ‘no’ from in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Take the case of Dutch meat trader Willy Sel­ten, who was ar­rested in 2013 by Gus­sow and her col­leagues. Be­hind fac­tory gates, Sel­ten was debon­ing meat from all over Europe, in­clud­ing 300,000 kilo­grams of horse­meat that ended up in su­per­mar­ket burg­ers.

The ‘horsegate’ fraud af­fected Bel­gium, France, Ger­many, Ire­land, the Nether­lands, Swe­den, Switzer­land and the UK. Prose­cu­tors de­manded five years. Sel­ten was sen­tenced to half that. Five years later, he is still free pend­ing an ap­peal.

“Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers say sen­tences are too light, but aca­demic literature has con­sis­tently shown that higher sanc­tions do not ac­tu­ally de­ter fraud­sters,” says Gus­sow.

“De­tec­tion is a more im­por­tant de­ter­rent, and the fact that on av­er­age we re­cover more than €1 mil­lion [A$1.5 mil­lion] from each of the ma­jor crim­i­nals we catch.

“Food fraud is not a vic­tim­less crime. It is an at­tack on a ba­sic hu­man right to know that what we put into our bod­ies is safe,” she con­cludes.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­der way in the team’s high-se­cu­rity of­fices

Foren­sic ex­pert Pro­fes­sor Chris El­liott in front of tonnes of sus­pect sun­flower seeds

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