Manhunt on for £8m garlic smugglers (but who'd want to share their cell...?)

Sweden claims two Britons tried to import massive quantity of bootleg bulbs from China

Swedish state prosecutors claim to have cracked one of Europe’s more bizarre if lucrative smuggling rackets in which two British citizens stand accused of illegally importing €10m (£8m) worth of cut-price Chinese garlic into the European Union via Norway.

The EU imposes as 9.6 per cent duty on imported foreign garlic in an attempt to prevent the continent’s growers from being driven out of business by Chinese farmers who have captured large swathes of the global market by producing crops at knock down prices.

But the duty, which came into force in 2001, has led to a surge in illicit imports  into the EU because smugglers can make millions by avoiding the tax. Police in Britain, Ireland, Austria and Poland arrested smugglers for illegally importing at least €3m worth of garlic into the EU last year alone.

Today Swedish prosecutors in Gothenburg said they had uncovered a massive smuggling operation involving the illicit import of  ten thousand tonnes of Chinese garlic worth an estimated €10m for distribution and sale throughout the EU. “We are talking about big money and a profitable operation. It involved many shipments of garlic,” state prosecutor Thomas Ahlstrand told Swedish newspapers.

Sweden has declined to name the two British citizens suspected of masterminding the smuggling racket which is thought to have started in 2009. But prosecutors said they had issued international warrants for their arrest and hoped they would be extradited to Sweden to face charges of aggravated customs violation on multiple counts. The two suspects are accused of setting up a company in Norway – a non-EU state where no garlic import tax is applied – to profit from the duty discrepancy. The supplies of Chinese garlic are said to have been sent to Norway by ship and then smuggled into neighbouring Sweden and the rest of the EU by lorry.

The European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, launched an investigation in 2010, and their inquiries led to the police capturing a truck containing 28 tonnes of Chinese garlic on the Norwegian-Swedish border in June that year.

OLAF said at the time that an estimated 1,200 tonnes of Chinese garlic had been illegally imported into the EU via Norway during the preceding 18 months by a gang of international smugglers.

OLAF refused to say whether Sweden’s arrest warrant for the alleged British garlic smugglers was linked to their 2010 investigation. “We cannot comment on the actions taken by individual EU member states,” Pavel Borkovek, OLAF’s spokesman, told The Independent.

Last month, a London-based import-export merchant was sentenced to six years imprisonment for smuggling thousands of kilos of Chinese garlic into Britain and dodging an estimated £2m in import duty. He had told customs officials he was importing fresh ginger which is free of duty. Customs officers discovered that his containers were too cold to house ginger but the perfect temperature for garlic.

In Ireland, the head of a major fruit and vegetable importing company was jailed for six years in March last year for smuggling into the EU over a thousand tons of Chinese garlic disguised as apples.

Herbal wonder drug: Garlic's benefits

Apart from helping to keep Dracula at bay and lining the pockets of vegetable smugglers, garlic possesses countless health benefits. It has long been considered a herbal “wonder drug” with a reputation in folklore for preventing everything from the common cold to cancer.

It has been used extensively in herbal medicine. Raw garlic is used to treat the symptoms of acne and there is some evidence it can assist in managing high cholesterol levels. It can also be effective as a natural mosquito repellent. The more pungent cloves of garlic have a higher sulphur level and considered to have a greater medicinal value.

Garlic is a powerful natural antibiotic, albeit broad-spectrum rather than targeted. The body does not appear to build up resistance to garlic, so its positive health benefits continue over time. In days gone by garlic was even used to help ward off the plague.

Tony Paterson