Nacho cheese: How our love of artisanal cheese is leading to an increasing number of cheese heists

Over the last few years, the world has witnessed an unprecedented crime spree. The target? Mountains of delicious cheese.

In January, $90,000 worth of Parmesan was stolen in Marshfield, Wisconsin, and another $70,000 worth of cheese was stolen just one week later in Germantown. Less than a year ago, French police were stumped by the theft of 100 wheels of rare Comté shortly after thieves took off with almost $1 million worth of Parmesan-Reggiano in Italy a couple months earlier. According to the U.K. Centre for Retail Research, cheese is stolen more frequently than any other food in the world.

While not (yet) glamourized in any Hollywood films, cheese heists are a high-stakes game involving a mix of petty criminals, international black market cheese rings and, somewhat surprisingly, maybe even your favourite restaurant.

“Restaurants and food service establishments are always trying to serve the best, and when you have a valuable product like wine or cheese, the temptation is there,” says Kevin Durkee, senior cheese expert at Pusateri’s Fine Foods and former owner of Toronto cheese-centric restaurant Cheesewerks. “If you’re a foodie, and travelling the world, you’ve probably bumped into something that got on your plate in a bit more of an interesting way.”

Translation: you’ve probably eaten stolen cheese.

This type of cheese theft isn’t just stingy shoppers running off with a wheel of brie in their pockets, it’s often well-organized operations that feed into a global black market. In the Italian Parmesan heist, police uncovered a mix of weapons, radios, electronics used to circumvent alarm systems and specialized tools for breaking into buildings.

"Restaurants and food service establishments are always trying to serve the best, and when you have a valuable product like wine or cheese, the temptation is there"

Then, of course, there are also the not-so-smart cheese criminals. For example, the band of thieves who made off with a truckload of cheese in the Brampton, Ont. area last year. Their scheme was foiled when the tractor trailer toppled over in Vaughan, leading to their arrests. “There might’ve been between 30,000 and 36,000 pounds of cheese in the truck,” said Const. Andy Pattenden at the time. “The truck was fully loaded.”

A few factors combine to make cheese highly tempting for criminals. Obviously, fine and rare cheeses are a valuable commodity, but perhaps more importantly, the Western world is experiencing a growing obsession with artisanal cheese from around the globe. While most people were satisfied with mild cheddar from Cracker Barrel a decade ago, consumers are increasingly craving speciality cheeses with more exotic origins and flavours. The trend has been dubbed “the artisanal cheese movement” by industry groups and media.

Then there’s the limitations placed on importing cheese around the world. “Part of the challenge within the cheese category is much of what we have the ability to purchase provincially, federally and country-to-country is somewhat limited,” says Durkee. “So if you have the ability to import a bottle of wine or cheese that nobody else can get, there’s some really incredible value.” For example, in Ontario, it remains illegal to sell raw milk cheese aged for less than 60 days. This restriction bars access to many of Europe’s finer cheeses.

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The most attractive cheeses for criminals are firm, hard cheeses because they last longer and are easier to move. “Things like cheddar, gouda, parmesan; those that are older and more stable have a better chance of hitting the black market and being resold. If you’re stealing a piece of brie, it’s only going to be delicious for a few more weeks,” says Durkee.

While large scale cheese thefts receive the most attention, the same types are often the targets of small-time shoplifters, who also tend to favour cheese as their main target. According to the U.K. Centre for Retail Research, an average of four per cent of cheese stock goes missing from store shelves.

It’s not just stolen cheese shoppers have to look out for. Perhaps more worrying is the growing fake cheese market. “There’s also this agri-mafia that’s coming out of Europe and many parts of Italy where beautiful, rich products like Parmesan-Reggiano or truffle oil are not the good quality people expect,” says Durkee. “The agri-mafia is selling Parmesan-Reggiano grated with wood pulp and other shavings, and stretching it so they can sell more and make more.”

"Fine and rare cheeses are a valuable commodity, but perhaps more importantly, the Western world is experiencing a growing obsession with artisanal cheese from around the globe"

A study by Bloomberg earlier this year found that some cheese brands promising 100 per cent purity contained no Parmesan at all. Eurispes, a European political, economic and social think tank, reports more and more agricultural activities are being penetrated by criminal powers. In 2012, they estimated 29.5 per cent of all activity in the agricultural sector was linked to illegal groups. The European financial crisis put a strain on many small food business that opened the door for organized crime to gain influence.

So how do concerned consumers make sure their cheese is not just legal but actual cheese? Going to a reputable cheese monger or fine foods retailer with knowledgeable staff who can talk about producers and suppliers is a start. Another tip is to buy Canadian. “I encourage consumers to look for the little blue cow trademark that indicates 100 per cent Canadian cow’s milk on cheese,” says Durkee. “It means the product is handled with a certain integrity all the way through the system.” He also recommends avoiding cheese deals that seem too good to be true.

The trendiness and high value of cheese are unlikely to subside anytime soon, so there will likely be more and more ways enterprising criminals try to make a little extra cheddar under the table. As Durkee says, “Who doesn’t want to steal the best product on the planet?”

This piece was first published in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux