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Inside the World of Large-Scale Food Heists (eater.com)
69 points by tim_sw on June 27, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

Not a food heist, but a funny food story nonetheless, as I heard it from my uncle an FDA inspector.

A US company got ahold of a load of tuna and wanted to sell it for people. Unfortunately, it didn't make the grade, so it was canned and labeled as catfood.

Then they found out that Canada had looser standards when it came to tuna, so the cans were sold and shipped up there.

Unfortunately the company who bought it got lazy and slapped the tuna fish label over the catfood label. Somehow some cans were sold to a US retailer and the FDA started to get calls from people who got a big surprise when they were peeling the labels off their cans of tuna and found a catfood label beneath it!

As a software engineer, I started a food marketplace startup in Brazil (http://liderfood.com.br/en) and the black market was much larger than we could ever imagine.

It's not just stolen food. There are entire industries for:

1) Acquiring and "reprocessing" expired food.

2) Smuggled food from overseas. Mainly for avoiding taxes.

3) Buying uncertified or unregulated goods (e.g. directly from farmers or uncertified factory)

It ends up being a painstaking process to make sure all our partners comply with regulations and quality standards.

Your first point intrigues me. Could you possibly elaborate on how the "reprocessing" of food works and what that process entails?

I imagine it's similar to any other processed food. Take initial food, change it into another form, most likely not even related.

Dry pasta is eternal as long as its kept dry, but can't be legally sold that way. Ditto plain white rice. Non white rice goes rancid in a couple months.

Aged "many years" cheese is normal (for some hard cheeses), but its only allowed to age a couple months in a fridge.

Potato chips if sealed from air won't go rancid.

Chocolate is eternal unless contaminated and even if its bloomed it can be remelted and re-tempered.

Honey is also eternal. Ditto syrups. And yes its illegal to sell food without an expiration date so even honey has an expiration date laughably. Crystallized honey can be fixed by 20 minutes of heating.

Salt has an expiration date. No kidding. For that pink Himalayan salt (or more likely fake made with food coloring) its 15 or 20 years I don't remember which.

I had to look it up... Himalayan salt is a Cambrian era deposit. 20 years seems a little short.

A MRO tech at a potato chip factory told me the chip bags are filled with nitrogen. So maybe they are free of oxygen inside.

I think many nonperishables with expiration dates (distilled water etc.) have to do with degradation of the container.

An "economic act of terrorism?" I guess he feels that since people aren't taking it seriously enough, he needs to throw around the "t-word" these days to get people to pay attention?

Exactly. Theft sucks and thieves should be punished, but give me a fucking break:

terrorism |ˈterəˌrizəm| (n) the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

Somehow it's ok to do this, but you're overreacting if you point out politicians blatantly use terror for policy ends.

It read as a hit piece for RIAA/MPAA if they were peddling something edible.

Clicked for the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist. Was not disappointed.


Funny? It was an act of terrorism.

See, this is why I just don't get drug prohibition. Why aren't we rededicating the resources we throw away on prohibition to preventing & investigating things like this? why is $100,000 worth of marijuana a greater threat to the Republic than $100,000 worth of stolen cheese?

Thats a Gouda idea!

Funnily enough people actually smuggle cheese as well.


Seems like something you could put a stop to very quickly with the use of some tracking technology & a medium-sized budget. I've got to guess that the actual impact to the industry and, more importantly, to the industry's insurance companies is just not large enough to warrant such an effort/cost.

I mean we're talking about physical goods here, in relatively large quantities, that are moving about at relatively slow speeds -- seemingly within very trackable regions. I understand "going after the big boss" -- but, at some point, it seems like stopping the issue "on the ground" may be the better & more effective way to curtail the issue.

It really just sounds like the free market (read: the producers, transporters, and [mostly] the insurers) don't deem the issue worthy of the expense to curtail it.

>Seems like something you could put a stop to very quickly with the use of some tracking technology & a medium-sized budget.

yes, it's true, any office with a handful of experienced engineers should be able to put together a GPS food tracker using a budget of only $100,000 and in just six months... in 1997.

Today, any hobbyist can assemble one for $100 in marked-up hobbyist parts and in an afternoon, or, if that's too much work, buy one for $30 that works out of the box.

Ok, now what's the margin on a pallet of apples? What's the R&D cost that the tech firm has to recover? How about the costs involved in the labor to attach and recover the devices on every single pallet of apples that doesn't get stolen... or to track them, or the cost of the ongoing contract with the tech firm, or the tech firm's profit margin?

And where are you going to put your GPS device such that the thieves won't immediately discard or disable it anyway?

Or put one cheap android phone, and track

And a sim card. And a power supply. And remember to keep topping up that sim card.

What are you going to track? the actual food? Lot's of drivers own and drive their own trucks.

You could add fake tracker-potatoes to potato truckloads. But those could also be scanned for and discarded by a dedicated thief.

In Iraq there was a theft of 10,000 tons of chicken. Who do you think bought the stolen birds?

See, https://www.amazon.com/Law-Rockets-American-Lawyer-Iraq/dp/0...

This sounds like a good reason to implement traceability of products — in addition to quality and hygiene control.

I guess you could do it by adding non-toxic trace elements; you could run your chicken salad through a mass spectrometer, and count the proportion of the trace elements.

"Aha, according to the ratios of Chromium(II), Chromium(III) and the isotopes of Iron, this was packaged at the Chickenorium factory in Chicago during the first week of December 2016!"

Is anyone on HN familiar with this industry? Are there any reasons that simple GPS tracking of the goods wouldn't work? Or is it simply not as big of an issue as this article is making it out to be?

I worked in the retail food industry as a starving student and one of the few nice things about megacorporate control of the food supply is corporate had an excellent idea of how many boxes of granola they shipped us vs how many we sold and questions would be raised if the sales figures didn't at least vaguely match the single source shipping figures.

Some independent ethnic market, or a restaurant, well, all bets are off, but they're a very small part of a very huge industry.

Most of the anecdotes are variations on very old insurance ripoff schemes which is why they're getting caught. The concept of ripping off an insurance company is not new nor specific to food and they're pretty good at figuring it out.

The guy who sold $32K of stolen shrimp gets to do that once in his entire life... meanwhile the regular seafood guy who was selling legal shrimp is pissed off and motivated to rat out the thief, so the problem is kinda self correcting. Remember that the average small business restaurant goes out of business in three years or less unlike the supply companies who have been around forever. The restaurant has no loyalty to the supplier, but the supplier has no loyalty to the restaurant.

Could be that many of the truckers are independent contractors. Also apparently the losses are sufficient to warrant the extra cost. Eventually rates for insurance may force it or the state may decide it has a real problem.

I read a sci-fi book where people lived in colonies around the solar system, and one of the most valuable and smuggled commodities was cheese (since milk was only produced on earth).

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