The label above the cheese shelves at Nesters Grocery contains a simple instruction: “Grab and Go.” Recently, some consumers have been taking this suggestion a little too literally.
Cheese is a major contender this year for the title of most frequently stolen item in Vancouver grocery outlets, though razor blades and deli meats remain high on shoplifting lists.
Cheese thieving, driven by voracious black market demand, remains a major concern for local food retailers and is prompting security overhauls at stores across the downtown core.
“It’s a big commodity,” said Darryl Booth, manager of a Yaletown grocery store. “It’s easier to sell off cheese, and it’s easier to take six, eight, 10 blocks of cheese, than it is to grab a couple roasts.”
Retail cheese is easily transportable, pre-packaged and not immediately perishable, making it an appealingly pocketable item for the light-fingered folk.
From Jarlsberg smoked Norwegian Baby Swiss to wheels of cheddar 12 inches in diameter, black market cheese is in high demand.
Some downtown pizza parlours seek to ease the burden of their most expensive edible overhead, Jones said.
The possibility of germ or disease transmission piles health concerns on top of legal and financial ones.
“Once, a particularly filthy and scuzzy crook—with open sores and scabs and the whole thing—was seen removing a two-pound block of cheese from inside his pants and selling it to a pizza place,” Jones said.
“My loss prevention guys have a whole list of places they won’t eat, just because of that….Yes, they have a list. No, I won’t be sharing the list.”
Downtown grocery stores tend to suffer higher rates of theft because they lie in areas inhabited by more crime-inclined individuals, Jones said.
Const. Jeff Campbell said widespread cheese-lifting has been a persistent problem since at least 2002.
“It became a steal-to-order thing,” he said. “‘I’ll give you $25 if you can get me a block.’ These blocks might cost roughly $100.”
With a smaller brick of cheddar or mozzarella, the price of crack cocaine could determine the amount paid for it.
“At one point, you’d get $2 for about 500 grams of cheese, because that was the price of a rock,” said Jones.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, complex international smuggling operations arose out of an insatiable demand for underground cheese.
“When I was in intelligence with the police, one of the big issues was offshore cheese,” Jones said. “Offshore cheese was organized crime.”
If a shipment of aged Dutch Gouda went bad in transport, he said, customs officials at the countries of origin and destination would reject it. Underground cheese-mongers then boated several miles offshore, carved off the particularly rotten parts of the import product and smuggled it into Vancouver to reprocess, repackage and resell it.
“We’re talking shiploads of the stuff,” said Jones.
Vancouver grocery stores have implemented such measures as undercover security, behind-the-glass protection and video surveillance to minimize theft-induced revenue loss.
Gavin Bennett, a deli worker at a Choices Market in Yaletown, said his high-end employer recently took up the services of so-called secret shoppers. These private security officers, contracted by grocery stores like Choices and Nesters to combat cheese theft and shoplifting generally, patrol the aisles at random times throughout the week in the guise of ordinary customers.
The Downtown Vancouver BIA’s six-person loss prevention team works with business owners and police to reduce shoplifting. They provide seminars and training sessions on theft deterrence and response.
They also set up surveillance on suspicious individuals, including employees, when called—in some cases through a direct line installed at select grocery outlets.
Vancouver police worked in 2004 with the RCMP in an undercover sting operation, Project Raven, to shut down a Downtown Eastside pizza shop purchasing black market cheese and fencing other stolen goods.
“They sent in operatives,” said Campbell. “We’d see, did they go through the regular processes and ask where [the cheese] was purchased and make sure it was up to code. Or did they just bail out $25 and take it.”
Hamid Khogi, owner of Freshslice Pizza near Davie and Granville Streets, said second-hand cheese vendors continue to come in with blocks for sale.
“We need more police here to help and get rid of these guys,” he said.
Tesco, a British grocery retailer, began applying security tags to some of its cheese products last year in a bid to prevent shoplifting.
Stores in Vancouver and across Canada have yet to adopt this measure.