MOSCOW: Russian police have arrested an international criminal gang for producing 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 President Vladimir Putin ordered the destruction of food smuggled in illegally.
Now police in the Moscow region say they have arrested six people for producing cheese worth some $30 million using 470 kilogrammes (1,000 pounds) of 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.
Police claim the cheese, which was sold under counterfeit labels, had made its way into grocery stores in St. Petersburg, as well as in the Moscow and Leningrad regions.
The suspects could face fraud charges that carry a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison, police said.
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. Small amounts of Western food brought into the country for private consumption are still permitted.