Mon, Jul 01, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Food fraud being fed by EU’s financial crisis

From counterfeit cod to sham champagne, food fraud is far more widespread than authorities previously suspected, with imposter ingredients such as engine grease in olive oil or high levels of methanol in vodka posing a danger to consumers

By Stephen Castel and Doreen Carvajal  /  NY Times News Service, GREAT DALBY, England

Illustration: Yuaha

Invisible from the roadway, hidden deep in the lush English countryside, Moscow Farm is an unlikely base for an international organized crime gang churning out a dangerous brew of fake vodka.

However, about 400m off a one-lane road in the countryside, tens of thousands of liters of counterfeit spirits were distilled, pumped into genuine vodka bottles with near-perfect counterfeit labels and duty stamps, and sold in corner shops across Britain. The fake Glen’s vodka looked real, but analysis revealed that it was spiked with bleach to lighten its color and contained high levels of methanol, which in large doses can cause blindness.

No one knows the harm done to those who drank it, or whether they connected any illness with their bargain vodka, but cases of poisoning have been reported throughout Europe, including in the Czech Republic, where more than 20 people died last year after drinking counterfeit liquor.

The Europe-wide scandal surrounding the substitution of cheaper horse meat in what had been labeled beef products caught the most attention from consumers, regulators and investigators this year. Yet that is just a hint of what has been happening in terms of food fraud as the economic crisis persists, regulators and investigators say.

Investigators have uncovered thousands of cases of fraud, raising fresh questions about regulatory oversight as criminals offer bargain-hunting shoppers cheap versions of everyday products, including counterfeit chocolate, adulterated olive oil, Jacob’s Creek wine and even Bollinger Champagne. As the horse meat scandal showed, even legitimate companies can be overtaken by the murky world of food fraud.

“Around the world, food fraud is an epidemic — in every single country where food is produced or grown, food fraud is occurring,” said Mitchell Weinberg, president and chief executive of Inscatech, a company that advises on food security. “Just about every single ingredient that has even a moderate economic value is potentially vulnerable to fraud.”

Speaking at a recent conference organized by consulting firm FoodChain Europe, Weinberg added that many processed products contain ingredients like sugar, vanilla, paprika, honey, olive oil or cocoa products that are tainted.

Increasingly, those frauds are the work of organized international criminal networks lured by the potential for big profits in an illicit trade in which most forgers are never caught. Vodka gang boss Kevin Eddishaw was caught, but not before he had counterfeited liquor on an industrial scale, generating profits to match, according to investigators, who estimated that his distillery produced at least 165,000 bottles costing the British government £1.5 million (US$2.3 million) in lost tax revenue.

“He was living a very nice lifestyle — a couple of properties, nice cars: a Range Rover, a Mercedes,” said Roddy Mackinnon, a criminal investigation officer for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

At Moscow Farm, the gang used the production techniques of a modern-day factory equipped with at least £50,000 in equipment, while ignoring safety rules. Gang members bought bottles from the supplier of the real makers of Glen’s vodka, saying they were destined for Poland. When forged label prototypes printed in Britain were deemed unpersuasive, higher-quality ones were brought from Poland. The gang faked duty stamps on boxes.

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