Why Cheese Is Stolen More Often Than Any Other Food

When you think of heists, the image that comes to mind is usually of bank or casino vaults filled with giant stacks of money. There have been no numbered "Ocean's" films featuring a gang of suave thieves plotting to steal enormous wheels of cheese. But maybe there should be because such heists do happen and are often successfully planned and executed.

Cheese, after all, is among the world's most frequently shoplifted food items. Back in 2011, in fact, Time proclaimed it the "most stolen food on Earth," with nearly four percent of cheese inventory worldwide nicked each year. If anything, rising food prices have made shoplifting cheese from supermarkets more common than ever. The attractiveness of these fermented dairy products as theft targets isn't difficult to understand. Cheese is delicious, for one thing, and the evidence is shockingly easy to dispose of. It's also small enough, typically, that it can be easily hidden, and in previous years, it was rarely given much thought in terms of security measures.

That has changed, however, at least in the U.K. In 2022, The Independent reported that supermarkets had finally begun to put security tags on cheese. But these tags — many of which feature alarms based on radio frequency-activated antennas — still likely would not have stopped some of the massive cheese heists that have taken place over the past decade.

The rise in international cheese heists

It's no secret why Pappy Van Winkle bourbon continues to inspire criminal behavior, including the theft of 65 cases back in 2013. Bottles are often enormously expensive due to high demand. One doesn't always think of cheese in the same way, but it is valuable — one type in particular. Italian cheese Parmigiano Reggiano (aka parmesan) is considered so valuable that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of it are stored in bank vaults, and some banks in Italy recognize it as valid collateral on loans. Thieves steal an average of three million dollars of parmesan each year, with the biggest heist coming in 2015 when an 11-person gang in Emiliana-Romagna made off with a nearly $900,000 score consisting of over 2,000 wheels of the coveted cheese.

Thefts of this value are rare, but cheese has been a target for large-scale larceny around the globe. Heisters in Wisconsin, for example, stole a truck containing 20,000 pounds of cheese valued at $46,000 in 2016. A similar theft occurred in the United Kingdom, in December of 2023, when £50,000 of cheese was heisted from a trailer parked at a service station, leading police to expect a surge in black market cheese sales over the holidays, per The Ledbury Reporter. Another major incident took place in the Netherlands in 2022, as $22,000 worth of cheese was stolen in a single well-planned crime.

Shoplifting is on the rise in supermarkets

Despite these high-profile incidents around the globe, it bears noting that the vast majority of cheese thefts occur in supermarkets via shoplifting. Even these are sometimes associated with large sums of money. Sainsbury's, one of the biggest supermarket chains in the U.K., recently banned a customer for life after repeated shoplifting that resulted in the loss of meat and cheese totaling £2,500, The Mirror reported. 

Shoplifters targeting cheese is also an issue in Canada. One shoplifter, quoted in the Financial Post, noted increasingly high prices had made good cheddar a luxury item he could no longer afford. So rather than scanning it properly at the self-checkout, he stole it. "I was like, 'Screw it, I don't care, I am taking the cheese,' and that was the first thing I took."

Shoplifting also seems to be on the rise in the U.S., particularly in the two most densely populated urban centers: New York City and Los Angeles. From 2019 to 2023, shoplifting reports were up by over 60 percent in both cities, per the Council on Criminal Justice. Meanwhile, the trend of shoplifters targeting more valuable products, like fine cheese, is increasing nationwide.