WASHINGTON — It was a professional hit, but with an unlikely target.
In February, and in broad daylight, a man entered the Safeway store on Columbia Pike in Arlington, Va., headed to aisle 11 with his grocery cart and then fled through the loading dock area with $945 in stolen merchandise.
The take: seven cases of powdered baby formula.
Forget electronic gadgets and faux Rolex watches. One of the hottest items on the black market right now is powdered infant food, particularly those high-end mixes for babies with special nutritional needs, according to law enforcement officials. FBI investigators say the theft of powdered formula, which retails for as much as $25 per 14-ounce can, is a multimillion-dollar business for international crime organizations that repackage the powder. Eventually, it ends up back on grocery shelves mislabeled, putting babies at risk.
Now some supermarkets are fighting back. Safeway executives, attempting to stop what the company says has become a $3-million annual loss, recently ordered cases of its more expensive powdered formula off the shelves. Stores in the Washington, D.C., area have begun complying with the directive, which requires shoppers to pay first, then have their formula brought to them by a clerk.
Powdered baby formula is a lucrative target for shoplifters because of its constant consumer base: Millions of infants in the United States alone guzzle it down several times each day. A 14-ounce can of powder, mixed with water, lasts about three days on average.
Once in the hands of organized crime, the formula sometimes is repackaged to make it appear to be a more expensive variety, and expiration dates and lot numbers often are changed, federal authorities said. It is then sold through wholesalers to groceries small and large in the United States and overseas--a transaction that risks contamination and worse for its little users, officials warn. Six times in recent years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has asked companies to recall formula thought to have been stolen and mislabeled.
Dismantling the organizations behind the profit-making venture has proved difficult, law enforcement officials said.
"When I first heard of this, I laughed. It's incredible--criminals and powdered baby formula," said Joseph Revesz, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Worth. "But it is very big. It's all over the country."
In July 2000, the Fort Worth office prosecuted 14 people--all but one hailed from Lebanon, Egypt or Palestinian-controlled territory--allegedly linked to a powdered baby formula cartel.
The formula was sent to a local fencing operation housed in a rat-infested warehouse, Revesz said. There, the powder was put into counterfeit packaging to get rid of the "Not for Resale" labels, and the expiration dates were changed. Eventually, the formula appeared back on store shelves across the country, he said.
Ten of those arrested pleaded guilty; most were given probation, according to court records. The ring's four alleged leaders were convicted of fraud, but a federal judge threw out the convictions on a technicality. Revesz is appealing that decision.
While there is no figure for how much baby formula is stolen nationwide each year, organized retail theft is a $32-billion to $35-billion business annually, according to Brett Millar of the FBI's interstate theft task force.