Vancouver police have arrested a man they allege was paying drug users to steal baby formula from local stores, then shipping it to buyers in China for a large profit.
China's baby-formula crisis of eight years ago, in which six infants died and thousands were affected, generated a lasting distrust of Chinese suppliers and a massive demand for formula produced in other countries, says a University of British Columbia researcher.
Detective Constable Doug Fell announced at a news conference Thursday the arrest and the recovery of $50,000 worth of baby formula. He said a container of baby formula retailing for about $30 in the Lower Mainland can sell for $80 to $90 abroad.
He said the department received information last month that an individual was purchasing stolen baby formula from people in the Downtown Eastside. Police believe the man had 10 to 20 people working for him on a daily basis and paid them about 30 per cent of the product's retail value.
"They use a predatory method, and the predatory method is they take our Downtown Eastside drug-addicted persons who are disadvantaged and they put them to work," Det. Fell said.
The 46-year-old man was arrested last week but has not yet been charged, and police have not released his name. The department has recommended charges including counselling to commit an indictable offence, trafficking in property obtained by crime and possession of stolen property over $5,000.
The department also said it expects to recommend charges against two more suspects.
Det. Fell said the department conducted surveillance of the main suspect and believes he may have been receiving at least 100 containers of baby formula a day. He said the man may have moved $200,000 in product over the past year and may be responsible for 70 per cent of the baby-formula thefts in the Metro Vancouver area over that time, adding that the time frame coincides with a spike in baby-formula thefts reported by local stores.
Tony Hunt, general manager of loss prevention for London Drugs, said retail theft puts the safety of employees and customers at risk. Mr. Hunt, who joined Det. Fell at the news conference, said the resale of stolen goods has become increasingly common.
"The thefts that take place, they're not simple acts of impulsive shoplifting. The individuals commiting these thefts are often very desperate, they have to commit numerous thefts a day in order to fill their need and they're prone to violence against retail staff," Mr. Hunt said.
Amy Hanser, a UBC associate professor of sociology who has researched China's food safety and importing of milk, says the demand for baby formula produced in other countries can be linked to the 2008 crisis, when formula made by a Chinese company was found to contain melamine, an industrial chemical that can artificially elevate the protein levels in the formula. The adulteration killed six babies, and thousands more were hospitalized.
"This happened quite a long time ago, but it left a permanent distrust among Chinese consumers," she said in an interview.
Dr. Hanser says affluent people can either buy baby formula online or have friends ship it to them. She adds that breastfeeding is very common among China's working class because formula can be expensive.
B.C. is not the only province that has seen baby-formula thefts in recent months. In October, police in Guelph, Ont., announced they had arrested three people for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars' worth of formula.