Russian police said Tuesday they had caught a international gang that was illegally producing cheese worth 3 billion rubles ($30 million/27 million euros).
Spokeswoman Yelena Alekseeva said police had "foiled the activities of an organized international criminal gang in the Moscow region whose members have for a long time been engaged in smuggling sanctioned products from abroad."
The cheese used rennet that was imported from the West, after Moscow imposed sanctions on the product. Labels were used to falsely identify the cheese as having come from known foreign cheese makers and the produce was sold in distribution outlets in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
During the investigation police raided 17 homes, warehouses and offices in the Moscow region. They found 470 metric tons of the rennet product, equipment for making counterfeit labels and documents that were said to confirm illegal activity.
Destruction of food prompts criticism
The country's national agricultural oversight agency has, in recent weeks, publicized the destruction of products including cheese. Footage of the food being destroyed with bulldozers and steam rollers sparked an outcry from the public, with a petition raised demanding that it instead be used to feed the poor.
Undeterred, Russia's general prosecutor on Tuesday launched a hotline to allow citizens to report illicit Western cheeses and pates. Authorities have warned that the embargoed products could prove harmful.
"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.
The Russian ban on rennet and other Western food products was introduced last year in retaliation to EU and US sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Small amounts of Western food are still permitted to be brought into the country for private consumption.
rc/cmk (AFP, AP, dpa)