- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

Baby formula is no doubt a necessity for many infants. It also is expensive, costing about $10 to $12 for a can that will feed a 6-month-old child for about five days.

That is why formula has become a target for professional shoplifters, who steal the formula, then sell it back to distributors or sell it to consumers looking to save money. The theft has risen into the tens of millions of dollars annually, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a grocery trade organization.

That can result in higher prices for consumers and potential illness for infants.

"There is a 'gray market' for formula," says Pete Paradossi, spokesman for Mead Johnson, the company that makes Enfamil baby formula.

Formula is stolen in large amounts by professional shoplifters, who then repackage it to make it look as if it is coming straight from the manufacturer. Unethical wholesalers sell it back to grocers at a large profit, Mr. Paradossi says. There also have been reports of regular formula being stolen and then relabled as higher-priced soy or hypoallergenic formula, he says.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not keep statistics on the shoplifting of formula. However, the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based trade association, estimates the problem costs retailers millions of dollars annually. Shoplifting penalties vary by jurisdiction, the amount of merchandise taken and whether the perpetrators are caught trying to resell the stolen merchandise.

Stolen formula has led retailers to take security measures in the baby-products department. At some local stores, consumers must pick up a voucher and present it to the customer service desk, much the same as if they were buying a big-ticket item, such as a television, at Circuit City. The consumer then can get a limited supply of formula. Other stores have anti-shoplifting devices on the formula cans and extra security.

Giant Foods recently began taking formula cans out of cardboard cases and storing them individually on shelves, says Jamie Miller, spokesman for the Maryland-based chain of grocery stores. That makes it harder for potential shoplifters to "sweep" shelves by taking an entire case of formula, he says.

"In stores with a higher rate of theft, the products may be kept in a location where the employees can keep a better eye on it, such as at the customer service counter," Mr. Miller says.

Other retailers have begun storing formula behind locked Plexiglas cabinets, similar to the way cigarettes another frequently shoplifted product are stored.

"Retailers are certainly making an effort," says Mardi Mountford, executive director of the International Formula Council, an Atlanta-based trade group. "Making access a problem will help."

Ms. Mountford says consumers can do their part in quelling shoplifting by buying formula products only at reputable stores. She urges consumers not to buy discounted formula at flea markets or online.

The Virginia General Assembly recently passed legislation that stiffens penalties for anyone selling formula or nonprescription drugs at a flea market. The passage of such legislation is good news for vulnerable consumers, says Margaret Ballard, director of corporate communications for the Retail Alliance, a retail trade association in Norfolk.

"Formula is a necessity for some, and it has a high retail value," she says. "Let's say you have a single mother without a whole lot of income, so she gets formula cheaper online or at a flea market. That is targeting a vulnerable market."

No matter where you shop, it is important to know what you are buying, says Dr. Frank Greer of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition. Consumers should check the bottom of the can, where the name of the formula should match the name on the label, he says.

"I have heard of people going to a discount store, taking a car seat out of its box and filling the box up with formula cans," Dr. Greer says. "So this is a big problem. Consumers need to check expired dates and the labels on formula cans."

Two people were charged with trafficking counterfeit goods in California two years ago and had to pay back Mead Johnson more than $200,000.

The shoplifters had bought low-priced baby formula at $7 to $9 a can and replaced the cans' labels with photocopies of Enfamil's hypoallergenic Nutramigen, which costs three times as much. The shoplifters made a huge profit by returning the formula for a refund, says Jud Bohrer, special agent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Feeding milk-based formula to babies who are allergic to cow's milk can result in fever, rash and vomiting, Dr. Greer says.

Retailers, meanwhile, need to buy only from reputable wholesalers.

"My advice to retailers is to know who your wholesaler is," Mr. Paradossi says. "If you find cases with mixed lot numbers, the formula could be stolen or could be expired. You lose your accountability if there is a problem."

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