Opinion: The new cocaine

POSTED: 03/19/14 10:15 AM

The new cocaine might be resting peacefully in your refrigerator or your kitchen cabinet right now. And no, we are not talking about drugs here but about the mafia’s new goldmine – counterfeit food and beverages. It could be the wild salmon you are so fond off, or the organic honey, or a precious bottle of wine. Gangsters have sniffed an opportunity and realized that not everybody is a drug addict but that most people eat and drink every day.

A large action of Europol revealed earlier this year that about anything and everything is counterfeited. Investigators confiscated thousands of kilos of fish, but also candy, coffee, champagne, whisky, vodka and wine.

In December Europol started an action in which 33 countries participated in America, Europe and Asia. Officers arrested almost one hundred suspects. Not all results are in yet, but the authorities have already grabbed 1,260 tons (that is 1.26 million kilos) of counterfeit food and more than 430,000 liter of counterfeit beverages. What did the inspectors seize? Amongst many other items were 131,000 liters of olive oil, 80,000 cookies and chocolate bars, 20,000 kilos of spices, 186,000 kilos of cereals and 42 liters of honey.

While consumers are always looking for good deals, gangsters involved in this counterfeit industry are laughing all the way to the bank. Many consumers are not buying what they think they are buying, says Chris Vansteenkiste, head of Europol’s counterfeit division.

In St. Maarten we know a lot (but as it turns out now, not everything) about counterfeiting. Somebody who buys a Louis Vuitton handbag for ten bucks knows that the product is counterfeit. But how many consumers are linking counterfeiting to food and beverages? Most people have no idea that that interesting bottle of wine or that delicious wild salmon is simply a low-level product with a fake label.

For criminal organizations, the counterfeit food and beverage market is the new Walhalla. In the drugs market they risk not only serious prison time, but also their lives. In the markets they have moved into now, they might get at best a couple of months of jail time. A big plus is that nobody is after them with machine guns. But the biggest upside is the market: there are many more ordinary consumers than there are drug addicts. That makes a small profit margin on a counterfeit chocolate bar more attractive than the huge margin on a gram of cocaine.

The counterfeiters therefore have the money to invest heavily in machinery and in personnel to produce and package their fake products to make them look like the real thing.

At Europol, investigators are aware that this form of organized crime is not a top priority. This is mainly because usually the fake products do not endanger people’s health. Vansteenkiste takes salmon that comes from a fish farm as an example. Gangsters label that as wild salmon because consumers are prepared to pay three times as much for this product than for a salmon from the fish farm. It is not dangerous, but it is of course fraud – and very profitable at that.

However, there is no guarantee that all these products are safe. In Spain, law enforcement officers confiscated 4,500 kilos of snails that were not fit for human consumption: the criminals simply had collected them in the woods.

What makes this market attractive for criminal organizations? Huge profit margins and low risk factors. An extreme example is the counterfeiting of a top wine from the French vineyard Romanée-Conti. The vineyard produces its wine in a limited quantity, but nevertheless it is very serious business. A top Romanée-Conti wine sells for up to €9,500 ($13,300) per bottle.

One does not have to feel sorry for people who buy this kind of wine, but that does not mean that this justifies gangster practices. The beauty of this scheme is that most buyers acquire a bottle of Romanée-Conti to possess it, not to drink it. This way they will never find out that they actually bought a cheap table wine for an astronomical amount of money.

The question is now: how many of these counterfeit items are on the shelves in our stores?


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