Why Americans love to shoplift meat.

How popular culture gets popular.
Jan. 19 2007 6:28 AM

The Purloined Sirloin

Why is meat the most shoplifted item in America?

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Every supermarket detective—or "loss-prevention specialist," as many prefer to be called—has an offbeat meatlifting story to share. There's the one about the lady who seemingly defied the laws of physics by stuffing an entire HoneyBaked Ham in her purse, the man discovered with a trove of filet mignons in his Jockey shorts, or the meth addict who explained that his dealer, exhibiting an atypical benevolent streak, had agreed to accept prime rib in lieu of cash.

Yet most shoppers who use the five-finger discount in the meat aisle are neither so brazen nor so desperate. Carts brimming with groceries, they'll stealthily slide a single tenderloin or T-bone into a coat pocket, then hit the checkout line alongside their nonlarcenous peers. In this way, millions of pounds of beef, pork, and veal disappear from supermarket shelves each year. Meatlifting is a grave problem for food retailers: According to the Food Marketing Institute, meat was the most shoplifted item in America's grocery stores in 2005. (It barely edged out analgesics and was a few percentage points ahead of razor blades and baby formula.)

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Meat's dubious triumph is due in part to a law enforcement crackdown on methamphetamine use. Meat used to be the shoplifting runner-up to health-and-beauty-care items, a category that includes cough medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in home-cooked meth. In 2003, for example, a quarter of shoplifted products were HBCs, while meat took second place at 16 percent. But states began passing laws that require stores to move medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind secure counters. That was enough to cut the pinching of HBCs, which fell by 11 percent between 2003 and 2005.

Supermarkets would love to do something similar with meat, reviving the compulsory interaction between shopper and butcher as in days of yore, but such an anti-meatlifting strategy wouldn't play well to the masses. Today's harried consumers want to zip through their food-shopping chores as quickly as possible—hence the proliferation of self-checkout lines and, more ominous for the Krogers and Piggly Wigglys of the world, online grocers. Shoppers would doubtless blanch at abandoning the self-service meat refrigerator in favor of once again taking a number and waiting for the attention of a white-coated butcher.

One compromise would be to place high-end meats behind a counter while keeping the ground beef and chicken thighs out in the aisle. Loss-prevention specialists note that a large number of meatlifting incidents, if not the majority, involve the pilfering of meats associated with luxury dining: rib-eyes, filet mignons, or lamb chops, among other treats. Stores have had particular problems with cuts bearing the Certified Angus Beef brand, which are often displayed near ostensibly less succulent offerings. With only enough money to purchase an ordinary chuck-eye roast, many otherwise ethical shoppers make a snap decision to lift the Angus instead. Store detectives speculate that these meatlifters feel entitled to have steak instead of hamburger on occasion, as a reward for their hard work; swiping an expensive bottle of dish soap doesn't provide the same sense of satisfaction. Though men and women shoplift in equal numbers, such aspirational meatlifters are most likely to be gainfully employed women between 35 and 54, according to a 2005 University of Florida study; men prefer to lift Tylenol or batteries, often for resale and often to support a drug or alcohol habit.

Though the behind-the-counter approach for Angus beef would certainly reduce meatlifting, it would also cut down on impulse purchases. And the happy reality is that for every shopper who decides to risk jail for a rib-eye, several more simply decide to splurge and shell out the extra few bucks for a choicer steak.

Wary about squelching impulse buys, supermarkets are instead looking for a technological deterrent to meatlifting. Mettler Toledo and Hobart, two of the nation's leading suppliers of meat-preparation equipment, have developed security-tag applicators that conceal the tag beneath the price label; walk out of the store with a purloined sirloin and an alarm will sound. To counteract more-sophisticated meatlifters who know enough to remove a steak's price label before attempting to flee, some stores are embedding security tags in the pads that soak up meat juice; try to remove the tag and you're liable to get bloody drippings all over your clothes.

Yet electronic solutions are too pricey for many smaller stores. And too often, staffers simply ignore the security alarms, especially if the suspected meatlifter is exiting with bags full of groceries; they just assume that a tag wasn't deactivated at checkout.

So, more innovation is required in the battle against meatlifting. Meat-sniffing dogs pop to mind, though some shoppers might object to having a Doberman nosing around their crotches in search of stolen steaks. But you know what they say about civil liberties in a time of crisis.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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