Why Are Thieves Stealing Cheese?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
There's a whole world of cheeses out there to be discovered. (Photo: Yellowj/Shutterstock).

What do you think the most stolen food item is in the grocery store? I asked that question on Facebook, and most of my friends guessed items like baby formula, meat or checkout lane candy bars.

They were wrong. People love stealing cheese. And not always from grocery stores.

At the Yeovil Show in Somerset, England, two hefty blocks of cheddar cheese were declared champion and reserve champion on July 15. They were stolen that night. According to the Guardian, the blocks each weighed about 20 pounds and each would have retailed for about £800, or $1,042. That's some serious cheddar, literally.

Rich Clothier, a third generation cheesemaker and the managing director of Wyke Farms, which produced the cheeses, is offering a £500 ($651) reward for the return of the cheeses. "These cheeses could be considered masterpieces," he told the Guardian. "It's a bit like having a valuable painting stolen."

And lest you think cheese heists only occur in England, Wisconsin cheese bandits stole a total of $160,000 in cheese in two different robberies across two weeks in January 2016, according to RT.

In one instance, thieves made away with a trailer with $70,000 worth of a "processed cheese product" inside. The thieves hooked the trailer full of inspected cheese up to another vehicle and simply drove away. The trailer was later found empty. The cheese product was recovered a bit later. It was sold to a local grocery store that put it on its shelves. The week prior to that robbery, $90,000 worth of Parmesan was stolen from a different Wisconsin location.

The Parmesan was never recovered, but it's not unreasonable to expect it will be sold on the black market to restaurants. Clothier said that it was entirely possible his prize-winning cheddars were likely already out of England by the time he realized they were stolen. In the fall of 2015, $43,000 worth of Comte was stolen from a dairy in France, and the speculation from Eater was that it would end up in restaurants outside of the country. Shortly before the French heist, thieves stole a whopping $875,000 worth of Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy.

It's not just the professional thieves who are stealing cheese by the ton; consumers are stealing cheese wedge by wedge. In reading about these recent cheese robberies, I came across a 2011 survey by Centre for Retail Research that answered the first question raised here: the most stolen item in grocery stores across the globe is cheese.

Why do people steal cheese?

A collection of cheeses on sale in a shop
Those prices don't mean anything to cheese thieves. (Photo: Douglas Toombs/Shutterstock)

Cheese is an item that one criminologist describes as "CRAVED" — Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable and Disposable, according to the Guardian. Unlike many items that would also fall under the craved description like razor blades or electronics, cheese is not fitted with any type of security tag. It's small and easy to stash in a coat, purse or stroller.

It also can be very expensive. The Comte that was stolen in France would have retailed for $43 a pound in the United States. Most consumers would see that as a luxury item, and some consumers see it as a luxury item that fits neatly in the pocket. (And it won't sound off any alarms as you leave the store.)

While globally, cheese is the most stolen food in grocery stores, in North America, it comes in fourth after meat, candy and infant formula. Although many of my friends of Facebook think it might be something else: singular grapes. Many people will admit to eating one grape out of a package before buying it to make sure the grapes are tasty. Or maybe, just maybe, they needed to make sure the grapes would go well with the wedge of Comte they just stuffed in their jacket pocket.