Contraband berries

  • 2010-08-25
  • From wire reports

TALLINN - Unmarked boxes of strawberries and chanterelles are shipped to Finland from Estonia; the imported goods of such kind are often passed off as authentic Finnish products on the market, reports daily Helsingin Sanomat. On a typical morning, a Tallink ferry is unloading cars in Helsinki’s West Harbor. Customs inspector Liina-Maria Hakli-Likolammi begins to check the consignments carried in the vans. A familiar white van with Estonian license-plates is also in the line. Its cargo consists of 750 kilos of chanterelle mushrooms and 110 kilos of strawberries. The strawberries are in green boxes with a barely visible Polish stamp.

“The strawberries are packed into consumer cartons, which should all be equipped with packing marks, but there are none,” says Hakli-Likolammi. This time the chanterelle boxes have appropriate markings telling the country of origin.
On some mornings the situation is different. The same van carries a consignment of 650 kilos of chanterelles without any markings whatsoever. In such a case, the mushrooms are easy to sell as being home-grown.
“For three years, I used to work in the consumer protection group of Finnish Customs, and we often visited the City of Helsinki Wholesale Market. There imported goods are often sold as authentic Finnish products, but the fraud is difficult to prove,” the customs inspector notes.

Last week, Hakli-Likolammi came across a more blatant case. A pickup coming from Tallinn carried some 2,500 kilos of mushrooms and berries without any markings whatsoever. “The bilberry boxes were marked in Finnish as containing berries, while the raspberry boxes were totally without markings. When the importers get caught, they panic and start gluing stickers to their boxes,” the inspector explains.

The purpose was to deliver the consignment to several Finnish purchasers, Hakli-Likolammi says. Frequently, the buyers are the same Finnish wholesalers. “It is annoying when consumers are being cheated in this way,” the inspector notes.
In Helsinki’s Market Square, at Jouni Matero’s stand, business is brisk. To stock up on his supplies, Matero goes to the Wholesale Market in Helsinki’s Sornainen district. “If the receipt bears a price and the country of origin, how could you prove otherwise?” argues the former policeman.
It is very tempting to sell imported berries and mushrooms as domestic products. One liter of Estonian chanterelles costs two euros. Finnish-grown mushrooms cost eight euros per liter - they have been hard to come by this year, with all the dry weather.

In the Helsinki Wholesale Market, there are some 20 fruit and vegetable wholesalers. Some of them are small agents who sell their products to market traders. “Some 90 percent of products are sold in an appropriate way, but in this matter the supervisory authority is the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE),” Timo Taulavuori, managing director of the City of Helsinki Wholesale Market, points out.

The Finnish Environment Institute has been monitoring the sales of the popular chanterelle mushrooms in outdoor markets and the sales of strawberries in the Wholesale Market. However, suspected cases of fraud are not easy to expose. “Every year, one or two offenses relating to foodstuffs are reported to the police, and fines are imposed very seldom,” notes Helsinki City Veterinarian Riikka Aberg.

Fines of a few hundred euros are not enough to restrain shady businessmen. In street markets, a consignment of 2,500 kilos of mushrooms and berries can easily be worth 10,000 euros. Imports of fresh vegetables from another EU country are supervised by spot-checking.
Every year thousands of kilos of consignments without appropriate markings are picked up by Finnish Customs at ports of entry.

Sales of suspicious products are banned in Finland, but the goods are not confiscated. All strawberry cartons have to carry a label bearing the name and address or code of the packer, as well as the quality grade and the origin of the products. All chanterelle cartons have to carry a label that tells at least the country of origin.
The sales of vegetables are supervised by the Finnish Food Safety Authority EVIRA and the Finnish municipalities.