Russian police have detained an "international criminal gang" that produced contraband cheese worth about $30mn using banned Western ingredients.
Police in the Moscow region said on Tuesday that they have arrested six people for producing cheese using 470 kilogrammes of banned Western rennet, a substance containing enzymes used for cheese production.
Russian officials are currently waging a major crackdown 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.
Following the most recent crackdown, 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.
During the investigation, police raided 17 homes, warehouses and offices in the Moscow region, where they found 470 tonnes of the rennet product, equipment for making the counterfeit labels and documents confirming the illegal activity, the police statement said. It said six people were arrested, but did not identify them.
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.
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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.
In recent weeks, in tacit acknowledgement that the import ban has been widely violated, the national agricultural oversight agency has been publicising the destruction of tonnes of contraband food.
As of Monday, 321 tonnes of animal products had been seized, of which 48 tonnes had been destroyed, the agency, Rosselkhznadzor, said. It said that of the 592 tonnes of fruit and vegetables seized, 552 tonnes have been destroyed.
Russia is going through an economic recession and many people have signed a petition urging the government to donate the food to the poor instead of destroying it.