ROME, Feb 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Italian police
said they have busted a crime ring exporting fake extra virgin
olive oil to the United States, highlighting the mafia's
infiltration of Italy's famed agriculture and food business.
Twelve people with links to the 'Ndrangheta, the organised
crime group based in the southern Calabria region, were arrested
on Tuesday on a series of charges including mafia association
and fraud, police said in a statement.
The gang shipped cheap olive pomace oil to the U.S. where it
was re-labelled as the more expensive "extra virgin" variety,
prized for its rich taste and health benefits, and distributed
as such to retail stores in New Jersey, they said.
Italian crime syndicates earned an estimated 16 billion
euros ($16.85 billion) in 2015 through illegal activities in the
agriculture sector, up from 15 billions in 2014, according to
Italy's agricultural association, Coldiretti.
Besides counterfeiting products, gangs make money seizing
control of farmland and firms, fixing prices, controlling
distribution and through labour exploitation, studies say.
In 2015, crime groups forced more than 100,000 Italians and
migrants to work long hours for little pay in fields across the
country, according to a report by Italian General Confederation
of Labour union (CGIL).
Police said they found no evidence of labour exploitation
linked to the fake olive oil scheme, which saw at least ten
tonnes of low quality oil, in some cases past sell-by date, sent
to the United States.
Pomace oil is extracted from olive pulp left-over from the
production of higher quality oils using chemical solvents.
It costs about a tenth of the Italian made extra virgin
variety, which sells at about 10 euro a litre, according to
David Granieri, the head of Italian olive growers' association
Granieri said counterfeit food products posed health risks,
as they might contain allergens not indicated on the label, and
damaged the reputation of Italian delicacies.
Honest producers, who rely on a perception of luxury to sell
at higher prices aboard, also suffered from cheap fake products
at a time of low oil production, he added.
"They (the crime groups) are drugging the system," he told
the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Police said they had been in touch with U.S. authorities on
Italy has long struggled against counterfeiting of its
prized culinary goods, and police estimate the domestic market
for fake foodstuffs is worth around 1 billion euros ($1.1
billion) a year.
($1 = 0.9494 euros)
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros
Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)