VANCOUVER — Vancouver police have cracked down on a crime ring accused of stealing so much baby formula that retailers noticed a spike in the product disappearing from their shelves.
Det. Const. Doug Fell said officers have arrested a 46-year-old man who allegedly recruited as many as 20 drug-addicted people in the city's impoverished Downtown Eastside to shoplift.
Fell called it a "predatory" operation at a news conference Thursday, adding that police seized an estimated $100,000 in stolen baby formula earlier this month. Police believe the crime ring shipped an additional $200,000 of the baby food to Asia, he said.
He said the operation was a mobile fencing ring, where someone known as a fence buys stolen goods from multiple thieves.
"They feel very insulated from the criminal justice system for some reason because they're not committing the theft," Fell said, standing before a multi-coloured display of hundreds of containers seized as part of Project Lactose Intolerant.
"It's just a really good way to make money for these individuals and stay under the radar. But as you see now, they're not under the radar anymore."
Police believe the ring accounts for about 70 per cent of the baby formula stolen in Metro Vancouver. Retailers reported the jump in thefts to police.
The suspect's name has not been released as charges are pending. Fell said the man will be charged with counselling to commit a criminal act, trafficking stolen property and possession of stolen goods worth more than $5,000.
A box of formula at a store costs about $33, while the street value in Vancouver is around $12, said Fell. Sellers can pocket many times what they originally paid by moving the product to China, where consumers pay up to $90 per container, he added.
China was rocked in 2008 by a scandal over tainted baby formula, which killed half a dozen children and sickened tens of thousands more. The formula was found to contain the industrial chemical melamine, which is known to cause kidney stones and kidney failure in infants.
Tony Hunt, a manager of loss prevention with London Drugs, said the drug store is taking extra steps to secure its baby formula, such as limiting how much it keeps on shelves, installing anti-theft devices and increasing surveillance.
"All of these items, to my knowledge, were stolen through shop theft," Hunt said, gesturing to the recovered formula stacked around him.
"It doesn't surprise me in the least (that) this would be a drop in the bucket compared to what's actually happening on a regular basis in the Lower Mainland."
— Follow @gwomand on Twitter
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