When the average Joe thinks about the black market, the images that often come to mind are livers being hustled through streets in styrofoam coolers or fake Fendi purses falling off the back of box trucks. But, in fact, all sorts of stuff finds itself on the illegal superhighway, including tons upon tons of edible contraband.
According to FreightWatch International, a global logistics company that keeps track of these things, food and drink made up a whopping 22% of all cargo thefts worldwide in 2015’s third quarter alone, accounting for nearly $800,000 in losses. Those ain’t no small potatoes. So, why are people risking it all to boost a few bites? Because it’s damn lucrative, that’s why. With tightly controlled distribution processes, federally regulated farming practices, and widespread shortages, moving 140,000lbs of free nuts is guaranteed cash money. And that’s what makes the world go round, right? (Er -- money, not nuts.)
Here’s a brief rundown of the most impressive -- and most ridiculous -- culinary heists of all time. So remember, the next time you drench your pancakes in some tasty Grade A Canadian maple syrup, you might just be an accomplice to a serious federal crime.
A rash of cheesy bandits
As it turns out, everybody’s favorite coagulated dairy product is one of the food chain’s more frequently trafficked items. Back in 2013, a 34-year-old Illinois man named Veniamin Balika attempted to truck 42,000lbs of stolen Muenster -- that’s about $200,000, mind you -- from Wisconsin to New Jersey, only to be pulled over and taken into custody during the last leg of his journey. The authorities who busted Mr. Balika reported that he was planning to sell the stuff on the cheap to vendors along the East Coast -- yep, that means the hot goods might have wound up in your deli sandwich.
These types of shenanigans even occur in France, a country whose love and admiration for cheese borders on complete insanity. Just last year, a mysterious group of voleurs made off with over two tons of Comté worth roughly $43,000 USD, puzzling restaurateurs in the cheese-loving Goux-les-Usiers region. But these stunts were child’s play compared to the great Parmesan fiasco of 2015, where a shady band of robbers swiped no less than $875,000 USD worth of the hard cheese over the course of two years. They ended up getting caught the following September, but holy havarti, that is some stealthy work.
Honestly, who needs that much soup?
In October of 2013, a Florida Man lifted a big rig loaded with $75,000 in stolen Campbell’s soup cans, drove it onto the turnpike, and was stopped by highway patrol 30 miles later. The man, hoping to avoid arrest and apparently having never seen a single police drama, hopped a fence and tried to to flee on foot. The cop nabbed him, of course, and later charged the idiot with two counts of grand theft. The soup, of course, was returned to its rightful owner, a Central Florida truck stop grocery store that somehow had call for $75,000 worth of soup (insert Mmm Mmm Good joke here).
Canada’s stickiest fingers
Canada made headlines -- I know, a rare occurrence -- when 6 million pounds of maple syrup were discovered missing from a single Quebec manufacturer on July 30th, 2012. In a practice known locally as “barrel-rolling,” sugar scoundrels had apparently drained about 10,000 barrels of syrup over the course of several months before heading out to sell their sticky stockpile, worth an estimated $18,000,000 USD. Mounties were able to recover 70% of the stolen cargo that next October, but the rest of the lot remained very much at large. By 2015, all 25 suspects had been arrested and, rumor has it, Sony purchased the rights to the story soon after. Stay tuned.
The Russian caviar capers
On New Year’s Eve 2005, a Russian bandit made good on his “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams” by sneaking into a guarded Moscow parking lot, breaking the locks off a parked businessman’s truck, and snatching up $470,000 worth of prized red caviar. Caviar happens to be a staple at well-to-do New Year’s Eve parties throughout the country, so the heist’s timing was particularly damaging. Despite a tireless search and massive press coverage, all 845 cans of the fancy fish eggs were never seen again.
In October 2013, one of the world’s most sought-after whiskeys found itself at the center of a heist of unprecedented proportions. Sixty-five cases of Pappy Van Winkle Reserve 20 Year, an extremely rare bourbon that regularly goes for thousands upon thousands of dollars on the resale market, was lifted from Kentucky’s Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. To put this into perspective, a single 23-gallon Pappy barrel retails for $11,000 -- and that’s if you can make it through the three year waiting list. The distillers initially suspected an inside job, as the liquor disappeared from the highly protected facility over several months. But when local law enforcement finally caught up with the spirited swindlers, they were able to link the crime ring to a handful of other bourbon boosts dating back to 2008. After the dust settled, 17 wooden barrels, 20 cases of Pappy, and one large stainless steel of Eagle Rare were recovered -- a mere fraction of the thieves’ estimated $100,000+ worth of hijacked hooch.
Chock full of nuts
For reasons I don’t fully understand, tree nuts have become quite the black market commodity in recent years. This wacky phenomena was cemented in 2012, when two schemers set out to swipe a cool $300,000 in walnuts from GoldRiver Orchards in Modesto, California. The dummies managed to hang onto the loot for a full week before getting busted and charged with theft, and in the end, all 140,000lbs of the precious cancer-reducing nuggets were returned to the orchard.
Anybody remember the late-'70s blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit? The one where a strapping young Burt Reynolds bootlegs 400 cases of Coors Banquet across the South at the behest of two wealthy Texans with 80 grand to spare? Shit is real, turns out.
Example A: In 2004, Moosehead Brewing, a successful Canadian (yes, them again) craft beer outfit lost track of a Mexico-bound tractor trailer ferrying 50,400 cans of their flagship lager. When the law finally apprehended the missing goods in a New Brunswick McDonald’s parking lot, they discovered that the 31-year-old beer bandit had already distributed most of his hefty load throughout the province.
Ten years later, a burglar quietly ganked a semi hauling $32,000 worth of Miller High Life from an Orlando truck stop. The truck’s driver, who had bought the rig just three weeks prior, was reduced to a blubbering mess at the loss. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for Florida police to find the man’s beloved vehicle, chilling in Miami, fully intact and still containing most of the 44,000lbs of lost brew.
Then, just this past June, two flatbeds packed with a baffling $90,000 in SweetWater beer disappeared from the Atlanta-based brewery. Using the trucks’ GPS systems, it only took one hour for police to locate 10 pallets worth of the 80,000 renegade bottles, which had been stashed in a nearby warehouse. SweetWater hired a private investigator to hunt down the remaining 30 pallets, and less than 24 hours later, the beer returned home safe and sound.
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