Criminals relabelled millions of expired food products and reintroduced them to the supply chain, risking health and safety of European consumers
A two-part investigation across several EU Member States has unveiled a criminal network who operate by reintroducing expired food into the supply chain. In total, law enforcement officials have arrested 27 criminals responsible for this relatively new criminal practice that jeopardises the health and safety of European consumers. Exploiting vulnerabilities in the supply chain initially induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the suspects started acquiring immense quantities of expired food and beverages. They would then chemically erase the expiry date printed on the individual items and reprint a new one. In other cases, a whole new label was forged and applied, giving the impression that the packaged food or beverage was still fresh and safe for consumption. Relabelled food and beverages may not only be unenjoyable but even dangerous for human consumption, and could pose a serious risk to public health.
This specific modus operandi was discovered and further pursued within the framework of OPSON, a large-scale investigation into the food industry coordinated by Europol. The ensuing investigations pursued by Member States and coordinated by Europol led to two targeted operations.
Two massive hits against food fraudsters
On 23 May 2023, Lithuanian Police (Lietuvos policija) and law enforcement from other Member States, coordinated by Europol and Eurojust, dismantled an organised crime group that reintroduced millions of expired food products with altered labels on the market. The criminals, who are also under investigation for large-scale VAT fraud, are believed to have made at least EUR 1 million in profits from their food labelling scam. Officers conducting 70 searches and inspections of warehouses, among other locations, seized equipment for altering the expiry dates on products. This equipment included household solvents, printers and labels. In total, over one million food and beverage packages were found and prevented from entering the market.
An action day on 11 July 2023 led to the arrest of three individuals. Europol coordinated the action day conducted in Italy by the Italian Carabinieri (Nucleo Anticontraffazione e Sanità dell’Arma dei Carabinieri), with the support of the Italian Financial Police (Guardia di Finanza). Law enforcement conducted 14 searches and seized more than 500 000 food and beverage items as well as equipment used by the criminals. Many of the seized food items were not only expired but already spoiled, highlighting the harm that could have been done to consumers. The criminal network collected expired food and beverages for little to no cost and replaced the expiry dates with new ones to enable their resale. Upon reintroducing these items into the supply chain, massive gains were made on the backs of unwitting consumers. The phenomenon is new in its scale and diffused across several EU Member States. However, there is no involvement of food producers, as intermediate suppliers or other entities working in food disposal are used as facilitators in this particular criminal activity.
Europol identified the phenomenon as one of the main incoming threats during the COVID-19 pandemic and alerted EU Member States by disseminating operational plans. An important link connecting the Lithuanian and Italian investigations was found by Europol specialists, thus demonstrating the large scale of the trend. Europol officers were deployed on the action days to provide on-the-spot support with mobile offices and conduct forensic analysis.
Participating Member States and authorities
Investigation leading to action day on 23 May 2023: Estonia, France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, Europol, Eurojust
Investigation leading to action day on 11 July 2023: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Europol