Meat added to top retail thefts

Sep 23, 2011

Cattle rustling used to be associated with a good western movie or a tale grandpas told around fireplaces rather than modernday news, but with the economy struggling and beef prices climbing, there is a new type of cattle thief emerging.

This rise in theft has taken on a bit of a twist, in that it’s not just the live cattle that are being targeted but, instead, the finished product—packaged beef.

Protein consumption is the new rage, with high protein diets and Generations X and Y wanting classier meals. The increased demand, combined with drought problems, has caused beef prices to climb anywhere from 15 to 20 percent, depending on the cut. According to market analysts, an influx of animals into the food chain because of the drought may lower the price temporarily, but it will likely be short lived.

Purdue Extension Ag Economist Chris Hurt says the high price of feed, the drought in the southern states, and a weak U.S. dollar (which has made it cheaper for other countries to import beef from the U.S.) are the key reasons retail beef prices are up.

“This is going to support prices across the cattle complex at new record highs in 2011 and again in 2012,” Hurt said. “Unfortunately, even higher retail beef prices can be expected for consumers.”

The price of feed has gone up since 2007, and the live beef count in the U.S. has steadily declined. With fewer animals being fed, and the weakened U.S. dollar, other countries can easily afford U.S. imported beef. “In 2003, beef exports reached a record, representing 9.6 percent of domestic production. Then the discovery of a BSE cow late in 2003 caused most buyers to shun U.S. beef and exports dropped to just 2.3 percent of production in 2004. It’s taken a long time, but 2011 is expected to result in a record 10 percent of our production heading to foreign consumers,” Hurt said in a Farm Progress interview.

Beef, veal, pork, eggs and such dairy products as butter, milk and cheese have seen the biggest increases in the past year, said Richard Volpe, an economist with USDA.

Beef and veal prices are expected to increase as much as 8 percent this year, with pork projected to go up as much as 7.5 percent. Beef prices are expected to climb another 4.5 percent to 5 percent next year as well, Volpe said.

The price of groceries rose 5.4 percent from July 2010 to this July, according to USDA’s latest report.

Apply the basic supply and demand rules, and U.S. consumers can count on getting the higher end of price chain.

In addition, when retail items become hot commodities, they also become hot commodity five-finger discount items, and in some cases, even make it to a larger scale theft ring.

The National Retail Federation has done research that shows businesses lose as much as $30 billion a year from organized retail crime, which includes meat theft. Their research shows that 95 percent of retailers were victims of theft in 2010, up from 89 percent in 2009.

A rash of meat thefts is included in this increase with bizarre cases of meat hidden in purses or clothes, and even a recent case in Florida where a man ate raw meat right out of the cooler.

An Ohioan was arrested after Wal-Mart employees saw him opening and snacking on packages of raw meat, then placing them back on the shelf.

Police in Texas enacted “Operation Meat Locker” this summer to catch a team of supermarket meat thieves who were selling their loot to local restaurants. According to police reports, the restaurants involved purchased over $1,500 worth of stolen meat before arrests were made. The sting operation started when managers at a Texas supermarket chain called police to say that they caught a couple of shoplifters. The shoplifters told the managers they were selling the meat they stole to three local restaurants.

The supermarket chain was mostly worried about the safety of the consumers who were eating the meat. “They’re watching these guys with this stuff in their pants, and besides being nasty, what’s the temperature of the meat?” says Sgt.

David Socha, who took part in the investigation.

Operation Meat Locker ultimately resulted in six arrests and three restaurants shut down.

In March 2011, a Dubuque businessman was sentenced to five years and eight months for his role in a 2007 meat theft ring in Cedar Rapids, IA. Officials say he bought thousands of pounds of stolen meat, then resold it. The meat was stolen by a meat theft ring, from trucks leaving a local warehouse.

In Marshalltown, IA, police said thieves stole more than 42,000 pounds of meat when they took off with a loaded semi trailer. Marshalltown police said the driver of a semi parked the trailer in a lot over Labor Day weekend, and when he came back to pick up the trailer, it was gone. The meat was estimated to be worth $100,000.

And in Fort Wayne, IN, Tracy A. Lawrence was arrested in July for stealing a case of ribeye meat from a restaurant, along with cases of chicken, turkey and pork, leading to his arrest on a Class D felony charge of theft.

In Arizona, over $5,000 worth of meat products were stolen from the Somerton Valley Senior Center in Yuma County. According to Louie Galaviz, Somerton parks and recreation director, someone literally smashed the two locks off the door of a walk-in freezer behind the building.

But this is not just a U.S. phenomenon. Just last week, Australia papers reported that five people were charged for stealing meat worth thousands of dollars. Detective Inspector David

Plumpton said the thefts were feeding a black market hungry for stolen protein. “It doesn’t sound particularly sexy or fancy, but meat is a tradeable item because of the cost,” Plumpton said in an interview with “ABC Today.” “If you and your family not only didn’t have to purchase meat this year but were able to sell meat this year, you’d make yourselves a significant amount of money.”

Organized retail crime rings consist of professional shoplifters, called boosters, who take “orders” from fences who buy the pilfered product. “Their entire job is to go out and steal. It seems that they stay within their realm: Meat thieves will steal meat,” Scott Stanley, an officer with the Tacoma, WA, Police Department, told reporters.

While some may be stealing the meat for their tables, larger organized theft rings are reselling it to consumers and restaurants. This meat theft trend definitely adds a twist to the importance of knowing where the product came from.—Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor