A Europe-wide crackdown on food fraud has seized horse meat and what appears to be falsified horse passports in a number of abattoirs across the EU, including some in Ireland.

The Europol and INTERPOL coordinated operation OPSON 2020 targeted trafficking of counterfeit and substandard food and beverages, from December 2019 to June 2020. As part of the wider operation, there was action on horse passports and horse meat in Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Ireland, Spain and the UK.

Checks were made on documents of more than 157,000 horses from eight countries and about 117 tonnes of horse meat. As a result, live animals and more than 17 tonnes of horse meat were seized from several slaughterhouses in Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Inspections of slaughterhouses in several countries showed that about 20% of the foreign passports used for these horses showed signs of forgery.

It was also discovered that competition horses with forged documents were also sent to slaughterhouses.

Europol’s executive director, Catherine De Bolle, said: "In times of crises, criminals always look for new ways to abuse consumers and increase their illegal profit to the harm of public safety. Counterfeit and substandard food is not only deceitful to consumers but can also pose a significant threat to their health.

"Our annual Operation OPSON shows in its ninth year that cooperation between law enforcement, regulatory authorities and the private sector is crucial to protect both consumers and businesses from the harm criminals try to put on our plates."

OPSON investigations also focussed on dairy products in Bulgaria, Italy, France, Greece, Portugal, and Switzerland, resulting in the seizure of 320 tonnes of smuggled or substandard dairy products. National authorities seized rotten milk and cheese which posed a threat to consumer health. Additionally, 210 tonnes of cheese were seized, which did not meet the conditions to be labelled with a protected geographic denomination.

There was also targeted action on alcohol and wine, with Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and the UK participating. Law enforcement authorities seized 1.2 million litres of alcoholic beverages, with the largest quantity being wine. Norwegian authorities seized more than 5000 litres of vodka smuggled in a trailer.

In total, this year’s operation OPSON led to the dismantling of 19 organised crime groups involved in food fraud and the arrests of 406 suspects. About 12,000 tonnes of illegal and potentially harmful products worth about €28 million were seized.

INTERPOL secretary general Jürgen Stock commented: £As countries around the world continue their efforts to contain Covid-19, the criminal networks distributing these potentially dangerous products show only their determination to make a profit. The scale and variety of food and drink seized during this operation serves as a reminder for members of the public to be vigilant about what they buy, and the need for continued vigilance and action by law enforcement."

EUIPO’s executive director Christian Archambeau added: "During a global pandemic there can be few things more important to citizens than knowing that their food and drink meets the highest health and hygiene standards. Europol and the other enforcement authorities are to be congratulated on taking coordinated action to help stamp out this callous crime, which has potentially severe consequences both for health and the environment."