Would you confuse apples with garlic? It appears that some Community importers do — thereby defrauding the EU budget. In September 2007, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), in cooperation with the customs services of all 27 Member States, ran a joint customs operation code-named “Wasabi”. This operation targeted the importation of fruit and vegetables into the Community, in particular from southeast Asian countries.
Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, responsible for anti-fraud, said “Operation Wasabi is again an example case of how and why we have to combat fraud today. By protecting the financial interests of the EU budget we also protect the health and safety of consumers and the interests of legitimate business. The Commission and OLAF are ready to assist wherever possible. Only the fraudsters win if we don’t act jointly with the Member States.”
Run from OLAF’s headquarters in Brussels, more than 2000 container loads of what was declared as vegetables were selected by the Member States customs authorities for specific controls. As a result of these targeted controls, numerous serious infractions against the Community budget revenues were identified. In addition to the financial impact of the irregularities, the amount of which cannot yet be definitively determined, the operation helped uncover breaches of the EU’s sanitary and health legislation, such as animal products from China whose importation is not allowed.
The overall results and necessary follow-up to Operation Wasabi was discussed last week at a seminar in Malta, organised by OLAF in cooperation with the Maltese customs authorities.
The evaluation of the results is ongoing. But it can be stated already at this stage that the major part of the fraudulent actions uncovered concern wilful misdeclaration of goods at customs clearance. A telling example case, uncovered in one of the spot checks during Operation Wasabi, involved the import of apples as declared by the Community importer, but in fact meant container loads of garlic brought into the EU. Additional checks showed that this illegal activity was going on over a long period of time and that in this case alone an amount of EUR 2 million in revenue was defrauded from the Community budget. Garlic is a particularly sensitive import good as witnessed by past OLAF operations (see OLAF press release OLAF/06/16).
At the debriefing seminar, representatives from the various enforcement services of all Member States and the United States, together with participants from the Commission services involved (OLAF, TAXUD, SANCO, TRADE, JRC) shared experiences in order to identify and act upon weak points identified in the control system operated by the EU.
The seminar concluded that there is an obvious need to target enforcement of the correct classification (with obvious implications for the Community budget). Due to the vast variety of measures applicable at importation and the increasing volume of fruit and vegetable products imported from third countries it was stressed that there is a specified and growing need for increased communication between customs and sanitary authorities and the ready involvement of laboratory testing and analysis to provide for correct customs classification at import with a view to safeguarding both the Communities’ financial interests and the health of its consumers.
For information to earlier joint customs operations please refer to: