Italian counterfeiters lose their bottle(s)

By Stuart Fuller


The news that Italian police had seized over 9,000 bottles of fake Moët and Chandon champagne from a workshop near Padua in Northern Italy shouldn’t be a major surprise to many brand protection specialists.  Thanks to advances in technology, one of the biggest challenges brands who sell food and drink is that of authentic labelling.  Fortunately, in this instance, the contents of the bottles were simple Italian sparkling wine which they were trying to pass off as French Champagne.  Other brands have not been so lucky in the past including an incident in 1986 where a fraudulent winemaker in Italy blended toxic methanol (wood alcohol) to cheap low-quality wine, the result of which was the death of twenty-three people.

Last year, authorities in Essex discovered a dangerous mix of alcohol and chloroform being passed off as vodka and being sold at a discount, whilst in Manchester, 130,000 litres of vodka laced with antifreeze was found on sale in Manchester.  Fake alcohol kills hundreds of people every year, so news of the bust in Italy should be of a concern for any brand holder who produces spirits.

The reward for the criminals are huge, although so too are the risks.  One look at the High Street prices for a bottle of Moët and Chandon at approximately £27, and a bottle of Italian Prosecco at approximately £7, you can understand the potential profits should they pull off the scam.  The authorities found a further 40,000 labels during the raid which could have netted the criminals a further €1 million profit.

Counterfeit wine accounts for some 20 per cent of international sales, according to unofficial wine industry estimates published in the French newspaper, Sud Ouest.  According to a 2012 report by HM Revenue & Customs, alcohol fraud results in losses of up to £1.2bn per annum to the UK taxpayer. Whilst beer fraud is currently the most significant of all the alcohol frauds affecting the UK, with 2012 estimates indicating between 5% and 14% of total beer consumption is illicit, fake wine is still a major concern, especially where consumers do not know they are drinking something that isn’t what the label says.  Interestingly, in a survey by PwC back in 2013, approximately 18% of UK residents (3% margin of error applicable) admit to purchasing counterfeit alcohol, a scary fact.

During the first half of 2013, Staffordshire County Council visited 400 local businesses during a ‘fake booze crackdown’ and they found counterfeit alcohol in 73 stores and seized more than 1,800 bottles. Nottinghamshire County Council trading standards officers seized 34 bottles of counterfeit wine, labelled as Jacob’s Creek, during an inspection at a store in Mansfield. It followed a tip-off from a member of the public who spotted a large number of spelling mistakes on the labelling including ‘Shardonnay’ instead of ‘Chardonnay’. A shop based in Edgware, was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £750 costs for being in possession of 249 bottles of fake Jacob’s Creek wine. This is thought to be one of the largest seizures at retail level of counterfeit alcohol in London.

Whether it is champagne, toothpaste or chocolate, fraudsters will try to tempt consumers by discounting their product.  Supermarkets wage a constant war for our custom with offers and discounts, but even they will not offer the level of discounts that the fraudsters will. So if in doubt, check prices online. If it looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is.