Meat, cheese and confectionery are among the items being stolen in large quantities from shops and lorries as increasing numbers of people are turning to a growing black market for food as prices rocket, stated a recent media report.
With food prices rising, figures in policing, retail and academia said action was needed to stop people exploiting the rising demand for stolen food.
Retailers are reporting a record year for shoplifting, costing the industry £1 billion this year, according to the British Retail Consortium’s estimate. Home Office data shows the crime has reached the highest level since records began, while the proportion of shoplifting incidents that resulted in a charge has fallen.
Andrew Goodacre, the chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association said the cost-of-living crisis had made people “think of alternative ways of sourcing items that are essential to them”. He said shops that had not faced shoplifting in the past were reporting thieves clear whole shelves in seconds.
“I think that’s because the black market has got so much bigger,” The Guardian quoted Goodacre as saying.
Prof Emmeline Taylor, a criminologist and shoplifting expert at City, University of London, said hardworking people who are now finding themselves in poverty are suddenly turning into criminals overnight and are more willing to buy stolen goods than to actually shoplift themselves because they’re one step removed from it.
Taylor said people told themselves it was a victimless crime and that supermarkets were the real criminals for raising prices or that shops were ripping off farmers or their own staff.
She said this was known as neutralisation, essentially “moral justifications that people conjure up to make themselves feel better when they’re doing something wrong”.
“Another technique of neutralisation would be, ‘Well how was I supposed to know it’s stolen?’ And that’s much more palatable for somebody than knowing full well themselves that they did steal something. So that’s where I think the cost-of-living crisis is creating the demand for stolen goods.”
Wendy Chamberlain, a former police officer turned Lib Dem MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for the elimination of food banks, said it was “not surprising” that people were obtaining food through criminal means.
She said important nutritional foods had “essentially rocketed in price” and that food poverty could be particularly acute this time of year, with food banks providing only essentials that were generally “not particularly attractive or nutritional”.
“When money is tight, when they’ve spent a long time saying ‘no’ to other family members, the opportunity to buy something a bit more premium and high end, with ‘ask no questions’, and ‘off the back of a lorry’, as it were, is appealing,” she said.
She pointed out how, when universal credit claimants were given a £20 uplift in their payments during the pandemic, food bank usage dropped. During this time, crime statistics show shoplifting also fell.
In October, police and the government launched an initiative called Pegasus, with £600,000-worth of funding provided by some of the UK’s biggest retailers. Among other things, it involves a new police intelligence team aiming to target organised crime gangs moving into retail theft.
A government spokesperson said police should be taking “a zero-tolerance approach” to shoplifting, adding, “We support millions of people every year to get the benefits they are entitled to, including providing advances to those who need immediate help, and to help people struggling with the cost of living are delivering an additional £3,700 on average per household.”