Meat and cheese tops the charts of shoplifted items. Why do we purloin sirloin and cop Camembert?
The five-finger discount isn't just showing up on the police beat—it's also reasserted itself more broadly in pop culture. In The New Yorker’s “Money Issue,” Miranda July writes that stealing requires a kind of Zen oneness akin to horse whispering or surfing (she ate through early adulthood by lifting soy products from the supermarket). Shoplifting from American Apparel is practically required reading for Generation Ambivalent. Wendy loses Lucy after unsuccessfully trying to steal dog food. Eater even has a column devoted to “Shit People Steal.”
For the most part, all this sly hunting and gathering is blamed on the economic downturn: The depressing logic of the American economy forces people to steal to put food on the table. Data tends to reinforce this idea. According to the UK’s Centre for Retail Research’s global survey on customer theft (or "shrinkage") released last week, shoplifting at grocery stores has risen over the last six months. This year, one of the world’s most stolen items is cheese—up there with alcohol, cosmetics, women's clothing, perfume, and razor blades. In the United States, purloined sirloin and Bogarted beef reign supreme, followed by stolen chocolates, infant formula, and more meat. (That means a little less than 4 percent of all meat offered for sale is stolen.
Meatlifting’s ascendancy on to the world’s “most shoplifted" lists stems in part from the crackdown on Sudafed and other cough medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in home-brewed methamphetamines. Now, these over-the-counter drugs are locked up with the razors, accessible only with the help of a clerk. Meat and cheese are still on display, ready to slip into your trousers or your purse.
Meat and cheese are also targeted due to the oddity of their economy: They’re expensive, but they're also destined for the trash bin. Richard Hollinger, a criminologist at the University of Florida and the author of an exceptionally-titled 1992 study “Deviance in the fast-food restaurant,” told me: “In general, people are more likely to steal things that have less perceived value.” Meat looks plentiful, and besides, its going to go bad. Others suggest that an increase in cheese theft merely reeks of middle-class entitlement. As Blur bassist and cheesemaker Alex James argues in The Times of London, “Stealing cheese is the worst kind of theft. It's like swearing in church or mugging a nun.”
The psychological motivation for pilfering food appears neither consistent nor entirely clear in the affluent Western world. In Rachel Shteir’s recent book The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, she writes that shoplifting may have more poetic than scientific explanations. Shoplifters who can afford food steal it for the thrill, or out of a sense that they’ve been wronged in some way. “Most shoplifting is not done out of need in the sense that it is not done solely out of hunger,” she told me. “I did not meet anyone researching my book who shoplifted a loaf of bread a la Jean Valjean.”
For the 99 Percent, the impulse to take may key into a wider cultural feeling of being cheated. Abbie Hoffman’s 1970 Steal This Book helped cemented shoplifting's outlaw status, and gave it an enthralling euphemism for the creative class: “liberate.” In the Western world, where even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can been patented, liberating ideas carries some vigilante merit. But liberating expensive cuts of meat won't feed the hungry or correct the injustices inflicted by large supermarket chains.
Lifting some gouda for personal use is not the same as occupying the grocery. But traditionally, embracing the idea of redistribution—sharing food—has offset food theft. Ellen Messer, an anthropologist at Brandeis, told me that we should all have access to healthy food in socially acceptable ways. That means you should neither have to have to resort to stealing nor charity to eat well. Whether everyone should be entitled to fancy cheese, though, is another question.