Food fraud, whereby food is misrepresented to tainted for economic gain, is a global concern. Although more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, Europe is also a major target.
In response, the European Union is taking action. The European Fraud Network and Europol have both recently uncovered major frauds across the bloc: the illegal import, trade and advertising of food contact materials containing bamboo; and the illegal sale of horse meat unsafe for consumption.
Bamboozled by illegal food contact materials
In the EU, plastic materials intended for contact with food may only be manufactured with substances that have been assessed and are authorised in accordance with Regulation (EU) 10/2011 on plastic food contact material.
Under this law, more than 900 substances – such as monomers, additives and polymer production aids – are authorised. However, plastic food contact materials, such as plastic crockery and cutlery, are being sold in the EU market containing bamboo and other plant-based additives not authorised on the EU list, making them illegal.
In response, the European Commission, together with the EU Food Fraud Network, teamed up with the customs authorities to put an end to the illegal import, trade and advertising of plastic articles sold as food contact materials containing bamboo and other unauthorised plant-based additives.
Over the course of one year, 21 countries participated in the project, including Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain.
In total, 748 cases of plastic food contact materials containing the illegal additive were notified by participating countries. Of these, 604 were found on the EU market and 104 were goods rejected at the EU border. A majority of illegal products were found to have originated in China.
So why is bamboo powder deemed potentially unsafe? According to authorities, food contact materials containing illegal additives may represent a public health risk, as it may allow for the accelerated degradation of certain plastics. This can lead to substances migrating from the plastic into food.
At the same time, often these products are presented as ‘natural’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘compostable’ or recyclable’. These, according to the Commission, are misleading false claims intended to ‘trick’ the environmentally conscious consumer into buying something they believe to be sustainable.
Member State authorities ordered producers, importers, and distributors to immediately withdraw the food contact materials found to contain unauthorised plant-based additives from the market.
Horsemeat scandal 2.0?
Another major case of food fraud was identified by authorities in Spain, the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil), together with the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, otherwise known as Europol.
The operation’s aim was to uncover the illegal sale of horse meat unsuitable for consumption, and it was successful: the investigation uncovered a large criminal network which was altering the traceability of horse meat by falsifying transfer and identification documents.
The network has been linked to a number of crimes, including food fraud, money laundering and document fraud. Such crimes did not impact Spain only, however. The untraceable meat was sold on the Spanish, as well as the Belgian, German and Italian markets.
It is understood that horses were acquired from across Spain for free, or for a maximum of €100, per animal. These animals were not destined for the food market, and yet the suspects exported the meat for consumption in other European markets.
The profits were sizeable, suggested Europol. “Even a single illegal shipment generated €35,000 for the transporters, with an estimated turnover of €4.5m on the logical side.
“The criminal network turned dirt into diamonds: horses that were written off and worth only €100 each generated illegal profits of about €1.5m.”
National authorities arrested 35 individuals and targeted six companies linked to the criminal organisation in Spain. In Belgium, an additional six more arrests were made by the Belgian Federal Police. In a series of raids, authorities seized half a tonne of horse meat unfit for consumption.
As Europol explained, the suspects involved in the criminal network had different functions, from those responsible for slaughtering the animals without the necessary controls, to those dealing with the transport. Others were veterinarians that provided false documentations, as well as the butcher facilities which sold the meat.
The fraud comes as the 10-year anniversary of the Horsemeat Scandal approaches. In 2013, horsemeat was identified in prepared frozen and meat products that were said to contain beef. Four individuals were sentenced in France over ‘Horsegate’, with punishments ranging from six-months’ to two-years’ imprisonment.