UK Intellectual Property Office Plays Up Imaginary 'Toxic' Claim In Grabbing Food Pretending To Be From Somewhere Else

from the grab,-go-and-exaggerate dept

When it comes to regulatory enforcement, agencies are often at a loss to try and spin actions as somehow being positive. Often such seizures are seen as petty and overreaching acts focusing on business protectionism or the shutting down threats to tax revenue (permanently in some cases) by regular people, meaning that getting public support for them can be an uphill struggle. Alcohol taxes are so unpopular that it’s the origin behind one of the most popular sports in the US ? NASCAR. Thus it’s tempting to try and upsell things by stretching claims beyond all credulity, as the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) departments did recently.

Facebook followers of the IPO were confronted with this story just recently:

“Campaign cracks down on toxic fake alcohol” screams the headline, with the comment that thousands of liters were seized in Operation OPSON (a name that looks like it was short for “operation poison”). A serious bust of dangerous goods clearly, and clearly the agencies are doing a great job protecting the country, so share it and back to cat pictures.

Or you could actually read the article itself, and find the story isn’t quite as portrayed, and no cyanide-filled bottles cosplaying as spirituous liquors were annihilated by brave officials. For that matter, not only is OPSON not a veiled reference to poison, it’s not even a priority. At the head of “notes to editors,” Operation OPSON is described quite differently:

“Operation OPSON, jointly run by Interpol and Europol, began in 2011 to tackle the criminal production and sale of counterfeit ‘protected food name’ products, such as gorgonzola or champagne. It is now an international project that regularly sees the seizure of hundreds of tonnes of fake and substandard food.”

That’s right, international police agencies are running an operation to seize food not because they are bad, dangerous, or harmful, but because they weren’t made in an approved locale. While some are fairly evident and obvious, such as lamb or beef labelled “scotch” or “welsh,” others are less-so. A Cornish pasty made in Devon or Derbyshire isn’t actually a Cornish pasty, because it wasn’t made in Cornwall. Likewise if you were to make Feta cheese, you can’t actually call it Feta, unless the sheep/goat milk came from Greece. Even Belgium has wanted in on the act for its chocolate industry.

The food is fake (and presumed sub-standard) not because it’s not that food, but because the place that made it wasn’t within a certain circle on a map, even if it’s absolutely identical and indistinguishable from the same product made inside that circle. This was never more evident than in 2007, when the protections around “Newcastle Brown Ale” were lifted? because the Scottish & Newcastle brewery wanted to move outside the circle.

But what of the toxic alcohol seized by the gallon? Well, like the goods themselves, it’s not what it appears. The 2,421.5 liters grabbed by authorities are in their own words mostly “…for fake or fiscal infringing wines and spirits.” Not because they were dangerous, but because of tax evasion, or trademark violations. So where’s the “toxic” issue in the headline?

The poison comes from a raid in Derbyshire, where:

“There was little of the finished product or the raw materials (Coolex screenwash) in the unit but a large quantity of bottles, tops and boxes.”

Never mind, because:

“A small amount of the finished product was identified, and on examination was found to contain high levels of iso-propanol. Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) causes intense drunkenness, is often used in cleaning chemicals.”

The question is, was that actually the finished product, or one that was put aside because it had those high levels? Moreover, it’s not exactly the most toxic, as the LD50 (lethal dose) for a rat orally is 5045 mg per kilogram. Compare with, say, ethanol (“good” alcohol), at 3450 mg per kilogram of mouse. Probably why even their expert, Visiting Professor at the University of Reading, Tony Hines had to say:

“…even at low levels, a ‘couple of doubles’ will cause dizziness, low blood pressure, abdominal pain and nausea.”

Not exactly “toxic” though, or all that different from regular booze, let’s be fair. In fact, the major difference is that isopropyl alcohol is just more potent than ethanol. So, to drive home the seriousness of this, they close with the following paragraph.

“In 2012, methanol poisoning from fake vodka resulted in the deaths of 50 people in the Czech Republic. In 2014, 2 men were sentenced to life imprisonment for their part in this tragedy, and many others sentenced to 14 to 20 years for their part. Eighty survivors were blinded as a result of consuming the poison.”

Not to be flippant about it (the incident has killed 51), but this was an incident that happened 30 months ago 1500 km away. It even used a different chemical (methanol), so its inclusion is completely irrelevant to the issues at hand, and is there solely to try and justify tax and trademark-based raids and seizures as being about safety, and pump up the “shareability” factor by giving them a excuse to hang “toxic” in the headline.

Now, don’t get me wrong, tainted and unsafe goods are bad, there’s no doubt about that. Yet if you’re going to try and play up a safety angle, then you really have to have a safety problem to hang your hat on. The vodka made from screenwash might be disturbing to some, but “toxic fake alcohol” is pushing it, when even if every drop of vodka they seized (171.1 liters) that year were high in isopropyl alcohol, it’s only 7% of the total seized. And yet we know they didn’t grab anywhere near that amount, because more than 240 bottles of the stuff is hardly “little of the finished product,” a description which would seem to me to indicate a dozen liters or less. And since they found only empties, it means it’s already gone out, so they’ve not really “cracked down” on it either.

Overall, the only toxic thing seems to be the press release, and then only for any journalist sloppy enough to regurgitate it without bothering to read it. That’s probably why, on Twitter, where pushback, feedback and replies are harder to bury, there’s absolutely no mention of “toxic” at all.

That’s because when it comes to poisonous, nothing beats hyperbolic government press releases for leaving good will stone dead.

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Comments on “UK Intellectual Property Office Plays Up Imaginary 'Toxic' Claim In Grabbing Food Pretending To Be From Somewhere Else”

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Lonyo says:

Actually you are wrong

There are serious issues with counterfeit food especially in Europe.
We recently had a horsemeat “scandal”, where horsemeat was found in products purporting to be beef etc, and horses can be given poisonous (to human) medicines.

There is also currently another food scandal, being nuts in various counterfeit products that are undisclosed, e.g. nuts in paprika.
Plus as everyone knows with alcohol, there is the old ethanol trick.

So there are actual health issues with counterfeit foods, as well as economic/trademark protection, and these are current issues that are actually real.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Actually you are wrong

“horses can be given poisonous (to human) medicines.”
You don’t want to know what beef can contain and fish is even worse. And I bet you ate more toxins at your last barbecue than you ever consumed be eating horse meat which is taste btw and is sold in normal markets in switzerland.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Actually you are wrong

A treatment plant specialized in hazardous waste from an undisclosed location could tell me that there was a restriction on how many fish they could burn because of a toxic product in the fish.

The horse meat scandal is not as much of a health scandal as it is a broader scam scandal. The product safety and quality is completely impossible to guarantee because of the number of middle men in the production chain and the number of legal zones it passes. With even one sloppy joe in the chain things go to hell in a handbasket and as long as the joe doesn’t do it consistently, it is impossible to track him down and stop him…

Andrew Norton (profile) says:

Re: Actually you are wrong

I’m a Brit, I know the horsemeat scandal well. No-one died, most people never even noticed (not as surprising as you’d think, meat looks like meat on the whole) so it’s not SO toxic. And everything can pass on toxins – see BSE/CJD.

As for Paprika having traces of nuts, well do you think the heat treatment planks, and the grinding mills etc. are ONLY used for Paprika? Plant I used to work at (evenings while at college) would run 13-ton a shift through single heat treatment unit, all hand-shoveled. They’d change all the time, and you could tell when they were going to do turmeric because they’d wear onsies to stop the staining, and damn the heat!
Nut cross-contamination isn’t as rare as you’d think. Especially as some nuts are not nuts (peanut’s a legume)

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Actually you are wrong

We recently had a horsemeat “scandal”, where horsemeat was found in products purporting to be beef, etc.
>Update: With all of the DNA testing of the cross contaminated beef products, the whereabouts of Shergar, a champion racehorse, was finally established in December 2013, subsequent to the final seizures of suspect beef.


Re: You really don't want to go there.

At least these new bogus appellations are a thing. That means that they are a defined thing. They are something that a different locale would be proud to associate themselves with. They are also a bar to measure against.

If you start enforcing these new and bogus appellations in the US, all you will end up with is weasley language that allows producers to essentially just do anything. There will no longer be a standard for anything because you will force them to use language that is meaningless.

You can call Velveeta “cheddar-like” but do you really want the town of Cheddar slandered that way?

Worst possible thing you could push US corporations into doing.

There is no “intellectual property” inherent in a region. That’s just blind nanny state and pro-corporate nonsense. If it’s not already well established by now (as with ANY french wine, not just champagne) then it’s an extra layer of corruption.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: You really don't want to go there.

The concept of intellectual property has little to do with any notion of ideals, and in practice has more to do with who has sharper teeth and bigger guns. That’s why any company in the US that bottles distilled spirits would be wise to avoid naming their drink in a way that might draw the ire of the Scotch Whisky Association.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: You really don't want to go there.

Actually these regional designations are better than standard trademarks in one important respect,. They are non transferable. A big company can’t just come along, buy the company along with the trademark and move the production elsewhere. It’s a bit like a copyright that can only remain with the originator.

At the end of the day it is about not misleading the public. There is nothing to stop a company producing a cheese just like Stilton and selling it. They just can’t call it Stilton.

Americans whinge about it of course because they don’t have much in the way of local produce that would be worth protecting in this way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 You really don't want to go there.

“Americans whinge about it of course because they don’t have much in the way of local produce that would be worth protecting in this way.”

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association would strongly disagree with you. And not just over “counterfeit” products, but even suing a county that had the nerve to name a nature trail “Kentucky Bourbon trail” that was sponsored by Kentucky whiskey distillers who were no longer members of The Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which owns the trademark to the name “Kentucky Bourbon.”

Whoever says:

“Operation OPSON, jointly run by Interpol and Europol, began in 2011 to tackle the criminal production and sale of counterfeit ‘protected food name’ products, such as gorgonzola or champagne. It is now an international project that regularly sees the seizure of hundreds of tonnes of fake and substandard food.”

Don’t worry. Isn’t there a new “free trade” treaty in the works that will put an end to the protection granted as a ‘protected food name’?

bureau13 (profile) says:

I have no problem with “the authorities” preventing the sale of a food or beverage item that is not, by content, different from what it claims to be (e.g. the screenwash vodka, or whatever). The Cornish pastries not being from Cornwall is a bit more of a stretch of course, and in the first case, that should be some arm of the law other than an IP group, but still. I do think this story is trying a bit too hard to make it’s point.


Re: The rubes may be smarter than you think.

The relevant enforcement agency is trying to spin this into something more nefarious because clearly they think that a basic trademark (or psuedo-appellation) violation isn’t quite exciting enough for the common man.

It’s a pleasant thought to think that they’re right in that regard.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: ...counterfeit foods...

It’s the new definition of “counterfeit” which doesn’t mean what “counterfeit” used to mean. That’s why you can have “counterfeit” drugs that are identical to (as in produced in the same plant using the same methods by the same company) their non-“counterfeit” siblings. Or the notion that a pirated movie is “counterfeit” even when it is the original movie and nobody has tried to convince anyone else that it isn’t a pirated copy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: ...counterfeit foods...

Also, creating any kind of alternative currency will get a person charged with “counterfeiting” even when it bears no resemblance to any official currency. Such as the Liberty Dollar that not only sent creator Bernard von NotHaus to the federal pen, but lavished the US government with a bank vault full of silver and gold (since unlike US currency, the Liberty Dollar was actually backed by precious metal).

DocGerbil100 (profile) says:

I’m not inclined to either be a cheerleader for the IPO, or give applause for overhyping the toxicity ange, but I am entirely in favour of the authorities seizing fake alcohol.

In the part of London where I live, it’s almost impossible to get a bottle of decent whisky in local off-licenses (our equivalent of the American liquor-store). The supply chain has been crapflooded with fake versions that cost the same as the real thing, but taste like shite, give you a much nastier headache and are worth less than half the asking price (the same stuff is sold as own-brand goods in supermarkets, so we know how much it’s worth). If I want to get a decent bottle, I have to go to Waitrose and pay through the nose for it.

God knows I’m no fan of general notions of IP, but I am entirely alongside it when it comes to getting rid of fakes and fraudsters who take our money under false pretenses, give us substandard crap in return, make the producers of the real thing look bad and generally make us all worse off.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If you mean the goods are actually in forged labels, masquerading as products from other brands, then that is a legitimate use (indeed, IMO the only legitimate use) of trademarks. If you just mean cheap grog in a fancy bottle with a high price, then that’s just what happens in an insufficiently competitive marketplace.

toyotabedzrock (profile) says:

NASCAR didn’t come from a tax it was from a prohibition.
And there was another fatal alcohol poisoning in Africa recently.
Often goods that are known to be fakes are substandard because they have no reason to follow any regulations.
And a geo claim on a product might seem odd unless you don’t understand that the product name to them includes the location.
It would be dishonest to sell Dutch chocolate made in Poland.

Andrew "K`Tetch" Norton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Prohibition ended in 33, correct; bootlegging still continued afterwards, albeit not to the same level, yes. “Running Shine” still happened, with Bill France organising some races with the stock cars, until NASCAR started 67 years ago this coming Saturday (I live just down the road from AMS, number of friends with full-on Dale shrines, I’ve been lectured on NASCAR history more times than I can imagine)

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“It would be dishonest to sell Dutch chocolate made in Poland.”

It depends. In the US, nobody thinks that chocolate called “Dutch” comes from the Netherlands. It’s indicating a style of chocolate. It’s the same with most other geographic indicators (champagne, etc.) So there is no misrepresentation in labeling such products here, and so it’s not dishonest.

I’m not arguing there’s no merit to protecting geographic indicators (although I am extremely skeptical about them), just that whether or not the use is dishonest isn’t always so clear-cut.

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