Late last month, three people were arrested in Utah for stealing thousands of dollars worth of baby formula, a common target for thieves because of its high price and demand.
Individual cans of formula can cost over $20, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than a third of US infants drink formula within their first six months. The three suspects obviously saw a profitable market with these statistics. Law enforcement confiscated 422 cans of stolen baby formula from the three suspects in Logan, Utah, a collection worth between $8,000 and $10,000.
“We’re not talking about petty shoplifting,” said Jennifer Hatcher, a senior vice president for government and public affairs at the Food Marketing Institute, in an interview with the Associated Press.
After shoplifting the formula, the thieves would repackage the mixture and sell it to parents on websites such as Craigslist or eBay for a discounted price.
“There are people that are making money off of selling the stuff,” police Lt. Kurt Schlehuber told AP. And the accused were not stealing formula to feed their hungry kids, adds Lieutenant Schlehuber. He says the theives recognized a high demand product and went for it.
The baby formula black markets are not a new problem.
“In the big spectrum of retail crime, infant formula is one of the top items,” Joe LaRocca from the National Retail Foundation, an industry trade group, told ABC News back in 2011. “Grocery chains will tell you that formula is targeted so often that in some cases they have locked it up, moved it behind the cash register, strategically put it on the floor, and in some cases they put a limited supply on the shelves.”
Florida authorities arrested 21 people in 2009 accused of stealing more than $2 million in baby formula annually. The law enforcement refers to this sting operation as “Operation Hot Milk.” The ring leaders would pay thieves at least $100 a day to fill bags with formula, sometimes hitting 15 or more stores in one day.
In 2010 the ringleaders of a group of thieves from Jefferson County, Colo., pleaded guilty to stealing more than $20,000 worth of formula.
“They’d literally sweep the shelves with their arms,” Mark Techmeyer, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office spokesman told USA Today in 2011. Techmeyer said the thieves specifically targeted Walmarts in the Denver and Colorado Springs area.
And a year later in 2011, police arrested suspects involved in $6 million worth of formula theft in Los Angeles, seven member of a crime ring in Texas pleaded guilty to $18,000 in theft and a Kentucky couple was arrested for $4,000 worth of formula theft.
Because the thieves are repackaging formula at their discretion, Hatcher says the baby formula black market can be a safety concern for parents and their new babies. For example, some thieves will repackage cow-milk-based formula as its more expensive soy- or rice-based counterparts for children with diary allergies.
Law enforcement has enacted several new measures to help tackle the formula black market. Some retailers stamp their name and location on containers to better help police located stolen goods and when large amounts of formula are stolen, companies will give websites the lot number so sites like eBay can help with surveillance. And stores that sell formula for the federally funded WIC program must now by formula from a list of pre-approved wholesalers.
“Each one of these tactics, it seems to have helped alleviate some of the ability for them to resell this product quickly,” says Hatcher. “That doesn’t mean it’s still not an incredibly attractive product to try to steal.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press.