SCOTTISH investigators have helped bust a €200 million scam involving fraudulent, mis-sold tuna. The issue is part of a wider problem with food crime across Europe, including rising sales of illicit, counterfeit and substandard produce. So what exactly is going on with our food?

What does the tuna scam involve?

The scam involved fish which had been caught for canning being treated with chemicals before being sold as fresh. The tuna is illegally treated with vegetable extracts containing a high concentration of nitrates, altering the colour of the tuna to give the impression of freshness, with potentially serious risks to public health.

How did the investigation play out?

The investigation, known as Operation Opson, involved police, customs and food experts from 11 countries, including Scotland where environmental health officers were involved in taking samples of tuna nationwide. Samples were taken from fishing vessels and processing plants across Europe and 51 tons of frozen tuna was seized. The bulk of it was seized in Spain where a criminal investigation is underway.

What other food and drink items are commonly faked or mis-sold?

Investigators across Europe have seized items such as fake baby milk powder, mineral water, seasoning cubes, seafood and olive oil.

Some Parmesan cheese has been found to contain wood pulp, while coffee beans and ground coffee can be mixed with twigs, stone, barley, and corn husks to increase the weight. Honey has also been targeted, with fraudsters diluting it with high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar and beet sugar.

Fake alcohol is also a problem and can include dangerous chemicals used in cleaning fluids and car screen wash.

How likely is it that I will have eaten the tuna or consumed other illicit food or drink?

This is a tricky question to answer. Ron McNaughton, head of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit, has said there is no higher risk of illegally treated tuna in Scotland than anywhere else in the world.

With regards to fraudulent food and drinks in general, Interpol claims “counterfeit and substandard food and beverages can be found on the shelves in shops around the world”.

The English Food Standards Agency also recently claimed that one in five British meat products tested positive for meat not on the label, with inspectors finding ham slices containing no ham, lamb doners with no lamb, and pork sausages packed with beef.

How big a problem is food and drink fraud?

Dr Robert Smith, an academic who specialises in criminal entrepreneurship, claims that mafia networks across Europe have merged with seemingly legitimate business to facilitate food fraud on a massive scale.

Across Europe last year, more than 3,620 tons and 9.7 million litres of either fake or sub-standard food and drink were seized as a result of more than 41,000 checks carried out at shops, markets, airports, seaports and industrial estates. Around 750 people were arrested or detained with investigations continuing in many countries.

Food Standards Scotland estimates that food crime costs the UK economy £1.17 billion each year.

Who polices food standards?

In 2015, Food Standards Scotland set up a new specialist unit to help tackle food fraud, the Scottish Food Crime and Incident Unit. The unit was set up on the recommendation of the Scudamore Expert Advisory Group which was established by Scottish ministers in 2013 in the wake of the horsemeat scandal. Local authorities and other law enforcement agencies are also involved.

Across Europe, Interpol and Europol are among the international law enforcement agencies targeting fraudsters.