TARPON SPRINGS — The chase ended before it began on a Saturday morning last month, the getaway plan foiled by a fatefully positioned curb in the Winn-Dixie parking lot. By the time police arrived, the tripped-up culprit was lying face down on the asphalt, trailed by his loot.
But there were no cartons of cigarettes, boxes of Sudafed or hair dye — none of the traditional fare of supermarket bandits. The bounty targeted in this score was three plastic-wrapped packs of six, seeping red, nicely marbled rib-eye steaks.
Curious, perhaps, but not unusual.
Meat seems to be quite popular among local shoplifters, a review of recent Tarpon Springs police records shows. Of the seven theft calls from the local Publix and Winn-Dixie stores officers responded to in January, six involved some sort of flesh.
And evidence suggests the trend extends far beyond the city limits.
One indicator is the emergence of the Web site — www.meatthief.com — a hub set up to honor humankind’s “unconditional love for meat” and the “extreme measures a few will undertake to possess its glory,” the welcome message states.
The anonymous host — “Baron Claus von Lambshank” — posts commentary about “outrageous” incidents involving “meat larceny throughout the globe,” along with links to media coverage.
There was a spate of “choplifting events” in Scranton, Pa., a “serial food thief” in East St. Louis facing his fourth arrest for stealing hams from the same store.
Bolstering this snarky compilation of anecdotal accounts is statistical evidence.
The Food Marketing Institute, an industry group based in Washington, D.C., conducts annual surveys of supermarkets across the country.
“Losses of meat were up if you look at the long-term trend,” said William Greer, a spokesman for the institute.
“Typically they are very high quality cuts.”
Meat — along with pain killers — topped the list of most frequently shoplifted items in the institute’s most recent report, which analyzed data from more than 7,000 stores owned by 42 retailers
Data shows that after four years of decline, shoplifting accounted for 35 percent of total product loss in 2005, up from 30 percent a year earlier.
Meat loss dropped off a bit since the unprecedented high of 2004, but not nearly as much as health and beauty care products, which propelled flesh-eating thievery to the top spot.
The biggest factor, according to Greer, is a growth of professional theft rings, which have orchestrated major resale scams of batteries, cigarettes and baby formula in recent years. Now, similar operations — on a local scale — have emerged in meat trade, Greer said.
“It’s a perishable item, but you have people who will go around with a cooler in their car and take orders at bars and restaurants ...usually for choice pieces of meat.”
The extent of the informal meat trade is unclear, since the survey captures only the volume of loss stores find out about —a fraction of what’s actually stolen. But supermarket companies, from independent operators to publicly traded chains, have been taking notice.
Greer said retailers have developed several hi-tech countermeasures. Digital cameras are being installed to monitor meat cooler areas. Tiny sensors that trigger alarms are embedded in labels and cloths placed underneath meat.
On the legal side, an industry-wide coalition has been pressing lawmakers to stiffen penalties for shoplifters operating as part of an organized theft ring, arguing that the petty theft measures currently on the books do not provide a strong deterrent.
Currently, only about half — between 44 and -59 percent-— of the shoplifters caught are turned over to authorities, the FMI survey shows.
Even with the weak laws, Tarpon Springs police are responding to plenty of meat theft calls.The curb-foiled getaway at Winn-Dixie, for instance, resulted in three counts of retail theft for 24-year old Brady P. Kusmierczyk, of New Port Richey.
Two days earlier, police responded to call from Publix about 10 minutes to noon. A loss prevention officer for Publix observed a woman stash a bottle of shampoo in her purse, proceed down aisle 4 to the sushi cooler, and slip two packs of the raw fish in her bag. After the suspect sauntered past the cash registers, a confrontation ensued. The suspect reportedly dropped her loot and dashed to her 1995 Chevrolet Tracker, which a police officer later traced to one Sarah Dale Waguespack, 24, of Holiday.
Records showed Waguespack had two prior theft convictions.
Also at Publix, a 48-year-old man from Tarpon Springs was caught with sushi, along with Nathan’s franks and a pack of ground sirloin. Loss prevention officers also thwarted a middle-aged woman’s attempt to skip out without paying for her chicken tenders.
Back at Winn Dixie, less than a week after Kusmierczyk and his steaks were cleared from the parking lot, Gigi Sessions was spotted entering the rest room carrying a pack of boneless rib-eyes. When Sessions came out, she appeared to be holding only a jeans jacket.
After failing to locate the meat inside the rest room, store employees approached Sessions to find out what she was carrying under her jacket.
When a police officer later asked why she had chosen to steal the most expensive meat, Sessions said, “If you’re going to go, you should go all the way.”