A two-part investigation conducted in multiple EU Member States has revealed a criminal network that operates by reintroducing expired food into the supply chain. Altogether, 27 criminals accountable for this relatively new criminal practice, endangering the health and safety of European consumers, have been arrested by law enforcement officials.
Taking advantage of supply chain vulnerabilities initially induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, criminals began acquiring immense quantities of expired food and beverages. They would then chemically erase the expiration date printed on the individual items and make new ones. In other cases, a completely new label was made up and applied, giving the impression that the packaged food or beverage was still fresh and safe for consumption. Repackaged food and beverages may not only be unpleasant, but even dangerous for human consumption, and may pose a serious risk to public health.
This specific modus operandi was discovered and subsequently further investigated within the framework of OPSON, a large-scale investigation of the food industry, coordinated by Europol. Subsequent investigations conducted by the Member States and coordinated by Europol resulted in two specific operations:
- On 23 May 2023, Lithuanian police (Lietuvos policija) and law enforcement agencies from other Member States, coordinated by Europol and Eurojust, successfully dismantled an organised crime group responsible for reintroducing millions of expired food products with counterfeit labels into the market. The criminals, who are under investigation for large-scale VAT fraud, are believed to have made profits of at least EUR 1 million from their food packaging scam. The agents, who carried out 70 searches and inspections of warehouses, among other locations, seized material for altering the expiration dates of the products. This equipment included household solvents, printers and labels. In total, over a million food and beverage containers were intercepted and prevented from entering the market.
- An action day on 11 July 2023 led to the arrest of three other people. Europol coordinated the action day carried out 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 over 500,000 food and beverages items, as well as equipment used by the criminals. Many of the seized foods were not only out of date, but had already spoiled, highlighting the harm that could have been done to consumers.
The criminal network gathered expired food and beverages at minimal or no expense and replaced the expiry dates with new ones, facilitating their resale.
By reintroducing these items into the supply chain, massive profits were made at the expense of innocent consumers. The scale and spread of this phenomenon are new, reaching across multiple 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 recognised the phenomenon as a major emerging threat during the COVID-19 pandemic and informed EU Member States by distributing operational plans. Europol specialists discovered an important link connecting the Lithuanian and Italian investigations, revealing the extensive scope of the trend. Europol agents were deployed during the action days to provide on-site support with mobile offices and forensic analysis.