Big cheese theft puts Dutch dairy farmers on alert

Thieves have long found cheese as appealing as many people find it delicious, and dairy farmers are on high alert in a sophisticated heist in the Netherlands.

Gerda van Dorp, a Dutch cheese farmer in the city of Fijnaart in the south of the country, woke up on March 29 in a mostly empty cheese storage room. Overnight, unidentified thieves took from her shelves 161 wheels of cheese, weighing 3,500 pounds, that had taken months to make and mature.

Price: About $23,000.

“It was like waking up to a movie,” said Van Dorp, who runs her own business and ranch with her husband, Jost.

The cheese was subsequently located in Eastern Europe from similar robberies in 2016, said Theo Dekker, president of an interest group for Dutch dairy farmers. The incident has put some farmers on edge, and Van Dorp said many other farmers had reached out to him for support.

Police said the thieves also stole his trailer and two wheeler from the farm, possibly to transport the paneer to a bus or truck. (A wheel of cheese weighs about 22 pounds.) Police said they recovered the trailer and a nearby wheel.

Van Dorp speculates that whoever stole the cheese may have been watching her farm for some time, where she lives with her husband and two children. The incident took place when the gate of the property was left open for milking overnight.

Police said that no one has been arrested in the case and investigation is on.

Selling cheese inside the Netherlands can be difficult. Every wheel of cheese has its own serial number, and farms add their own logo to it as well to indicate where it was made—and to make the products easier to trace.

“Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, but we are concerned about how professional it has become,” said Decker, who is a dairy farmer himself. “These people come at night and take everything by brute force. It’s almost like organized crime.”

“They know what they’re doing,” he said. “It scares us.”

Consumer goods prices have increased in the Netherlands, as they have anywhere else in the world. In March they were up 9.7% from a year earlier, reaching their highest level since 1976, according to Statistics Netherlands, the Dutch government body that tracks data.

According to the Dutch Dairy Association, the Netherlands, home to 1.6 million cows (and over 17 million people), is a major producer of dairy, of which about two-thirds is exported. In 2020, the Netherlands exported dairy products worth about $8.1 billion.

Decker said he had warned the 290 members of the interest group to be extra vigilant, install cameras and double-check their locks before going to bed. In total, the Netherlands, a major producer of cheese and other dairy products, counts 500 farms that make cheese and other products from their animals, he said.

When the Netherlands witnessed similar robberies a few years ago, Dekker said he had seen security footage of the thefts and was shocked by the speed and force used by the thieves. At the time, the Dutch newspaper NRC estimated that around 19,000 pounds of cheese had been stolen in 2015.

Still, this is a special case, said police spokesman Mireille Elders. “I know that a while back, batches of cheese were stolen across the country, but this is not the kind of incident that happens weekly or monthly,” she said. “It’s quite unique.”

The problem is not limited to the Netherlands. Italy’s precious Parmesan cheese is a frequent target, including a daring nightly robbery of 25,000 pounds in 2018.

Wisconsin has its own issues with what one cheese seller dubbed the “cheese pirate.” In 2016, when an unmarked trailer was stolen from a parking lot in Oak Creek, someone made over 20,000 pounds of cheese with over $46,000 worth of cheese.

Decker said a major robbery at Van Dorp’s farm is not just unfortunate from a monetary point of view. For many farmers, who make cheese from the milk of their farm animals and often live on the same property, it feels personal.

“There’s a little emotion involved,” Decker said. “These people pour passion and love into their work.”

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