In 2013, Veniamin Konstantinovich Balika showed up at K&K Cheese in Cashton, Wisconsin, bearing paperwork that identified him as an employee of a trans-national trucking company. The company was contracted to take a $200,000 payload of Muenster to Texas. For K&K, it was a normal transaction, a routine transportation deal, one of dozens the company would make over the year. Outside of engine problems, K&K had no reason to suspect any trouble…
Balika, however, wasn’t working for a trucking company (or at least a legitimate one), and he certainly wasn’t going to Texas. Balika was executing a heist.
A robbery like this is simple: it takes little to assemble a truck driver costume, security isn’t strict on food cargo, and anyone with average research and computer skills can produce false paperwork. So after presenting his documents, Balika watched as a work team loaded 42,000 pounds of cheese into his refrigerated truck, entered the driver’s seat, and made off with a payload that could net him hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. The swoon of adrenaline carried his truck of savory mold all the way to New Jersey – until police at the Vince Lombardi service area, a popular truck stop off the Turnpike, stopped him.
While tax fraud or Ponzi schemes induce mild interest, heists quicken the heart. When a famous painting disappears in a heavily secured museum, we delight in imagining how one might “dodge the lasers,” but most of our interest lays in contemplating the utter boldness it takes to say, “fuck it, I’m going to steal a Picasso.” In this light, a food heist is extra compelling, because it forces us to ask an additional question: why would someone steal energy drinks or breakfast spread (or protein bars for that matter) when he or she could steal, well, anything else?
Food heists are not as rare as we might imagine – the past few years have revealed a number of people who are more tempted to lift a truckload of Redbull or £14,000 worth of Nutella than they are a painting.
Let’s start on the seemingly neutral ground of cheese. While each food heist is context-specific, it’s safe to say that stealing a common food feels less grave than stealing medical supplies. When a New Zealand couple lifted kilos of cheese from an Auckland bound train in 2009 and were subsequently swept into a car chase, they began to hurl the smelly substance at the pursuing police vehicles. The image of police officers burning rubber as they screech around blocks of cheese in a high-speed pursuit is certainly comical, even exciting. But criminal? Mildly.
Regardless, cheese remains the most stolen food on the planet, with approximately 4% of all cheese produced ending up in the hands of criminals. In terms of value, that’a a tremendous amount of stolen money. This statistic refers not only to small thefts but to major heists as well, like the one attempted by Balika.
Of course, motivations for food theft run deeper than ethics and excitement. With rising food prices, a black-market for luxury foods has blossomed in which stolen victuals pull in nearly 70 cents on the dollar, versus the 30 cents garnered from illegal electronic sales. The 2013 Global Cargo Theft Threat Assessment, printed by FreightWatch, reveals that most cargo heists are executed in the transport stage through a deceptive pickup.
Instead of hijacking highway food trucks 1920’s style with tommy guns and fedoras, modern food thieves simply don the identity of the scheduled transporter and, like Balika, steal the food at the pick-up location. According to FreightWatch, from 2009 to 2012 this type of cargo theft increased by an incredible 763%.
While it may not be as exciting as dangling into Fort Knox on a wire, some food heists are equally as baffling as high-profile thefts. In 2012, for example, the BBC reported a story on a Canadian maple syrup heist of up to 30 million Canadian dollars. When the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup performed their typical inventory check on a maple syrup stockpile north of Montreal, they were stunned to discover that every single barrel was completely empty. The question of how the 3.4 million liters of maple syrup disappeared into thin air is still is still beyond the scope of investigators.
These types of high-profile food heists do invoke an Ocean’s Eleven flavor of intrigue, but the gravity of food thievery is diluted by how bizarre it is. Perhaps this contributes to why food is often a better target than diamonds. A food heist is a safer heist, both in actual execution and in social backlash. Despite how costly gourmet food products are (Whole Paycheck, anyone?), they’re not guarded by lasers—and only occasionally by security cameras. And when we hear that someone stole $30 million dollars worth of maple syrup, we’re not out for vengeance – we’re impressed (and strangely delighted).
Of course, it would be different if it were our maple syrup.
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