Cartels and organised crime target food in hunt for riches

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From adulterated olive oil to counterfeit vodka, the trade in fake food is booming – and for mafia gangs it’s less risky than drugs.

At first glance the sprawling campus in the glorious Cotswolds countryside looks an unlikely base from which to wage war against Italy’s most feared crime organisation, the ‘Ndrangheta.

And yet the laboratories of Campden BRI, once part of the University of Bristol and now a major research hub, are, in their own quiet way, playing a vital role in tackling organised crime. The laboratories are not conducting forensic tests on specks of blood or splinters of bone. Rather, they have been contracted by the government’s Rural Payments Agency to carry out chemical tests to establish the purity of olive oil which, since March, has been subject to new EU regulations designed to ensure that consumers get what they believe they are paying for.

This is bad news for the ‘Ndrangheta and other organised criminal gangs, which for decades have been assiduously passing off inferior olive oil and oil from other vegetable sources as the premium extra virgin variety.

According to the European parliament’s food safety committee, olive oil is the product most at risk of food fraud, and the rewards for adulteration of it are substantial. Cheap pomace olive oil – extracted from olive residue using chemicals – sells for 32.3p per 100ml, compared with £1.50 for extra virgin.

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