Photo released by Russian food safety agency Rosselkhoznadzor shows crushed boxes of cheese outside the southern city of Belgorod. (AFP Photo)
Moscow (AFP) — Russian police said Tuesday they had detained an “international criminal gang” that produced contraband cheese worth some $30 million using banned Western ingredients.
Russian officials are currently waging war against produce from the West prohibited under a year-old embargo introduced in retaliation for sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine.
Authorities earlier this month started bulldozing piles of cheese, peaches and even frozen geese after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the destruction of food smuggled into the country illegally.
Now police in the Moscow region say they have arrested six people for producing cheese worth some $30 million (27 million euros) with banned Western rennet, a substance containing enzymes used for cheese production.
Authorities “foiled the activities of an organised international criminal gang in the Moscow region whose members have for a long time been engaged in smuggling sanctioned products from abroad,” police spokeswoman Yelena Alekseeva said in a statement.
A police video of the arrest published by the interior ministry showed law enforcement officers pinning one suspect to the ground and another against a vehicle.
Police claim the cheese, which had been sold under counterfeit labels, had made its way into grocery stores in St. Petersburg, as well as in the Moscow and Leningrad regions.
Russia retaliated against tough new Western sanctions, banning most food imports from the United States and the European Union and threatening to block flights over its airspace (AFP Photo/Olga Maltseva)
Law enforcement officers recovered some 1,000 pounds of rennet and equipment to print counterfeit labels during 17 separate searches of the suspects’ homes, offices and warehouses, the interior ministry said.
The suspects could face fraud charges that carry a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison, police said.
An unnamed source in law enforcement told RBK business newspaper that the rennet used by the ring had been imported illegally from countries including Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which are subject to Russian sanctions.
When contacted by AFP on Tuesday, the interior ministry refused to reveal the precise origin of the foreign produce.
Police also said the investigation was ongoing and that they were trying to identify other members of the ring, as well as consumers who could have purchased the contraband cheese.
Banned food hotline
Russian government bodies have warned citizens against consuming embargoed Western products, which they claim can be harmful.
The destruction of Western food has prompted criticism from politicians and activists and a rare outcry from ordinary Russians, who say the produce could feed the country’s poorest.
But that has not put off officials, and Russia’s general prosecutor on Tuesday launched a hotline for citizens to report illicit Western cheeses and pates to the authorities.
“Unscrupulous suppliers are importing these products without quality compliance checks or compliance with transportation and storage conditions, which can make them dangerous to citizens’ health,” prosecutors said in a statement.
In its first day of operations, the hotline received more than 50 calls from different regions, one of its two operators said.
Small amounts of Western food brought into the country for private consumption are still permitted.
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