On March 26, 2013, Veniamin Balika pulled his 18-wheeler over at the New Jersey Turnpike's Vince Lombardi rest area. The reprieve didn’t last long, as Balika soon found himself handcuffed and arrested by state policemen. The driver didn't have anything too suspicious in his possession, only a massive shipment totaling 42,000 pounds of Muenster cheese, valued at over $200,000, stored in his refrigerated truck. Balika was supposed to be delivering the load for K&K Cheese/Old Country Cheese Factory, the cheese manufacturer, in Cashton, Wisconsin.
Except it turned out Balika was on detour — an extremely long and roundabout one that was taking him thousands of miles away from his alleged Texas destination. Police claimed that the truck driver had falsified his paperwork, which he had presented to K&K in order to obtain the cheese. According to investigators, Balika admitted that had no intention of ever reaching the designated buyer, and confessed to stealing the cargo in order to hock it to buyers at restaurants, cheese shops, corner stores, sandwich shops, or, at worst, a middleman who would then turn around and do the same.
"There’s a black market for everything. We’ve found stolen beer, stolen food, but this is the first time we’ve found stolen cheese."
"There's a black market for everything," said New Jersey state police detective Oliver Sissman at the time of the arrest. "We've seen everything stolen. We've found stolen beer, stolen food, stolen machine parts, but this is the first time we've found stolen cheese."
Although we laugh at the idea of a criminal mastermind whose plans involve hauling off almost 9,000 pounds of comté, food thievery is a recurring crime. Often times stolen food products wind up being resold: Thieves make a profit, while buyers obtain the item for a highly undervalued price and then re-sell to their unsuspecting customers. In 2013, Jose Cestony of Miami was found guilty of stealing and reselling $158,000 worth of shrimp: Cestony claimed that a refrigeration unit in his delivery truck failed and that he was forced to dump the product; in reality, he sold the shrimp to another distributor for the surprisingly low price of $32,000. This past December, a father-and-son’s "family business" in Syracuse, New York involved stealing over $40,000 worth of chicken wings from a restaurant they worked at in order to resell it on the streets; in April, an individual in Colorado stole over $5,000 worth of cheese from a local restaurant, allegedly with the intention to resell to food distributors or restaurants. And just a few days ago, reports announced an increase in avocado theft in New Zealand thanks to a growing shortage.
A large draw to boosting food is that the stakes, compared to other stolen goods, are extremely low. Unlike money or electronics that have serial codes, it’s difficult to trace food that has been stolen. And to make matters worse, the penalties, even if a perp is caught with thousands of dollars worth of stolen goods, can be almost non-existent. "It’s a slap on the wrist," said Rocky Pipkin, a private detective based in Visalia, California and president of the Pipkin Detective Agency. "Even if [thieves] get caught — and very few have gotten caught — unless the Feds get involved and rope up all the people facilitating the transport and such of the large quantities, then it’s grand theft." According to Pipkin, that translates to "no time in jail in California, or at least very little."
In 2015, Freightwatch International, a global logistics security services company, noted that 178 cargo thefts had been reported in that year’s second quarter alone, averaging approximately $189,307 per heist, with food and beverage goods comprising 16 percent of the thefts. At an annual rate, this would amount to approximately $21 million worth of stolen food and beverage goods. While insurance may cover the farmers’ and producers’ costs, this assessment excludes possible economic damage to insurance companies, middle-men distributors, and the stores that didn’t receive the products.
Aaron Foster of Foster Sundry and former head buyer of New York's Murray's Cheese isn't unfamiliar with the idea of cheese fencing, or of thieves stealing perishable products. "My sense is that anybody that embarks on a heist like that must have a buyer lined up already," said Foster, adding that trying to sell a large amount of cheese comes with "a huge amount of risk or headache. You have to hide that truck, and an 18-wheeler full of cheese is not something you can hide in the fridge."
"You have to hide that truck, and an 18-wheeler full of cheese is not something you can hide in the fridge."
He further noted that even without a buyer, thousands of grocery stores and bodegas or convenient stores hawking egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches are more than happy to take the questionable seller's sub-priced gouda off their hands. DNAinfo reported earlier this year that teens in Manhattan had been scooping up hundreds of dollars of Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s pints from CVS and Duane Reade pharmacies, with the intent of reselling them to bodegas. And in 2014, 10 convenient store owners and managers in Kentucky were found guilty for not only buying products nabbed from grocery stores and pharmacies, but even providing thieves with shoplifting lists.
For many of these boosters, storage and food handling safety isn’t a huge concern, making these food black markets a possible hazard for consumers’ health. Many people would be concerned knowing that the meat they were eating was, at one time, "pants meat." And unsurprisingly, law enforcement agents have found that food waiting to be sold on the black market often times isn’t stored in the proper conditions. "We caught a guy who had stolen a load of orange juice and he had just left it lying around in his garage," Pipkin said. "Consumers who end up buying stolen goods can get seriously ill."
Unfortunately, in some industries, these thefts are not one-off occurrences. For the past five years, the agriculture community in California's Central Valley has struggled with continuous nut heists plaguing the industry. According to CargoNet, a network of cargo shipping firms and law enforcement with a common goal of preventing losses, over the past four years, $7.6 million dollars worth of nuts have been stolen. In 2015 alone, 31 reported cases of nut thievery resulted in a total loss of $4.6 million.
"Over the last 10 years, the price of almonds went up significantly," explained Dave Kranz, the manager of the communications/news division at the California Farm Bureau Federation. He explained that before nut prices began to increase, avocado theft was a common crime due to the fruit's significant price, and that this similar mindset has led to the current desire for almonds, pistachios, and cashews. "The theft trends tend to follow the market for any good — not just an agricultural good — and it becomes more of interest to people who want to get their hands on that product illegitimately," Kranz added.
The criminals involved are changing and hacking documents to maintain a sense of legitimacy in case of a run-in with the law.
The continual waves of cargo thefts from nut farmers in California quickly caught the attention of Mike Boudreaux, a local sheriff of Tulare County. "This is an organized syndicate, and they're very well-versed in the trucking industry, cargo industry, and the agriculture community," Boudreaux said. Although he could not reveal their country of origin, the sheriff explained that the criminals involved are changing and hacking documents to maintain a sense of legitimacy in case of a run-in with the law, and are selling the stolen goods on the black markets in Europe and Asia. "This is not your criminal on the street corner selling knock-off watches," he added.
Essentially, don’t expect these guys to be posting sales of 40,000 pounds of walnuts on Craigslist or eBay. Pipkin believes that many of the syndicates’ members conducting oversea brokerages are industry insiders who won’t leave a trail when sealing a deal. "They have either been in the business, or could even be legitimate business persons to an extent. They’re already brokering fruits and nuts to folks, and everything looks legit," said Pipkin. "They know how it works, and they know who to contact."
Local law enforcement is taking steps to crack down on the increasing amounts of cargo thefts. Boudreaux goal at the moment is to push for people "to know what we're doing" in Tulare County. The sheriff revealed that along with a collaboration with the FBI, he has pushed for state legislation that will assemble a task force to handle the syndicate. He's also pushed for motions that will increase the severity of the punishment for perpetrators of these food heists.
For those outside the local community, the news of these thefts might never reach one's radar, and if they do, it might come across more as more of a joke than a legitimate reason of concern (see: the newscasts' reactions and punny headlines for every cheese theft ever, Canada's great maple syrup heist of 2012). Boudreaux, however, believes this category of heists is far from a laughing matter. "We have lost millions of dollars, and it impacts the farm laborers, the farming community, community stores, families," he said. "I think it's an economic act of terrorism. It impacts us fiscally at so many levels."
Matthew Sedacca is a freelance writer based in New York.
Editor: Erin DeJesus