A plan by two Dutch men to hide half a tonne of cannabis in piles of pizza cheese was foiled when they were caught at the UK border.
Henrik Ruben, 28, and Dominic Leeman, 30, attempted to smuggle drugs with a street value of £5m in two shipments of cheese, the National Crime Agency said.
The pair were caught when the packages were intercepted at Dover Docks by Border Force in 2016.
Ruben, of Dieren, was jailed for six years at Maidstone crown court on Thursday after a jury convicted him of conspiring to import drugs.
Leeman, of Arnhem, was found guilty of the same charge and sentenced to five-and-a-half years.
They were part of a wider organised crime group and operated two units on Slough Trading Estate, where the cannabis was to be unpacked.
The cheese was then to be repackaged and shipped back to the Netherlands to be used again.
The intercepted drugs. One text seen by the NCA read: “Do I have to put the old cheese in those boxes the product is delivered in?”. Photograph: NCA/PA
The pair imported the cannabis through a company called Bertus Foods, also known as Global Foods, which was set up as a front for drug smuggling.
Ruben was in charge of travel arrangements and Leeman was key to organising the food “carousel” of sending produce back and forth.
The duo used encrypted phones to communicate, but National Crime Agency investigators were able to access their messages.
The investigation revealed the pair discussed arrangements for transportation of the cannabis to clients.
In one text, the damning question: “Do I have to put the old cheese in those boxes the product is delivered in?” was exchanged.
Ruben’s phone had photos of herbal cannabis and cannabis resin on it, as well as pictures of a forklift truck being used to load and unload pallets of white boxes from an HGV.
Martin Grace, a branch commander at the NCA, said: “This is a significant disruption of an organised crime network who were intent on bringing illegal drugs into the UK.
“The pair thought they could fool us by disguising cannabis in food shipments and giving fabricated stories to border officials. But we are ready and have tools in place to disrupt drug supply and distribution.
“The cannabis had a street value of more than £5m, which no doubt would have funded further criminality on our streets.
“We take all importations of illegal drugs seriously. Drug smugglers perpetuate serious violence, which spreads throughout supply chains and puts innocent members of the public at risk.
“Today’s sentencing marks the end of a long investigation in which we worked closely with Border Force officers. We will continue to work with Border Force to disrupt criminals and protect the UK from harm.”
Nick Drinkal, the director of Border Force South East and Europe, said: “Border Force’s seizures took a substantial quantity of cannabis off the streets and out of the hands of those who seek to profit from illegal drugs.
“Border Force will continue to work with our law enforcement partners, both at home and abroad, to tackle drug smuggling and put the criminals responsible for these crimes behind bars.”