Cheese heists to oyster raids: How France is struggling in fight against gourmet thieves

After a wave of thefts of high end gastronomic delights including oysters, cheese and fine wine, France is fighting back against the pillagers. But despite using state of the art resources such as spy oysters, the thieves are proving hard to stop.

Cheese heists to oyster raids: How France is struggling in fight against gourmet thieves
Police on motorbikes patrolling an oyster farm in western France. Photo: AFP
Criminals in France have long held an unhealthy appetite for some of the country's famed delicacies and products.
Indeed in December last year, 800 kilos of oysters stolen from sea farm in western France, a common occurrence during the end of year festivities as the delicacy is a staple for Christmas and New Year's dinners in French homes and restaurants.
The theft caused an estimated loss of a whopping €35,000.
Fine French wines have also been on thieves' shopping lists.
In August, a band of resourceful thieves used the Paris catacombs to reach a wine cellar, before making off with more than €250,000's worth of top quality alcohol. 
And then there's the cheese heists.
In 2015, The Local reported on another incident when four tonnes (100 wheels) of Comté cheese was stolen by thieves in the east of the country. Estimates at the time said the loot was worth anything from €40,000 upwards.
Four-tonne fromage heist stuns French police
Wheels of Comté cheese. Photo: Joi Ito/Flickr
The cheese heist took place under the cover of night while the cheeses were being stored in the “rue des Caves” (Cellar Street) — the nickname of the street where a large number of cheese producers age their product — causing around €10,000 worth of losses to Borrel. 
“The thefts have been increasing over the years: there are more and more of them and they've never been stealing as much as they are now,” Borrel told The Local. 
“Good farm products are in vogue. Food produced on farms is sought after and on top of that reselling has become increasingly easy because it's so hard to track it down in the markets.”
Thieves arrive organised and well-prepared with tools to help them make off with as much loot as they can get their hands on. 
“The thieves use brutal methods: ripping off iron doors, cheeses are knocked over… some cheeses have even fallen on the ground. My neighbors were robbed one year ago and the locks had been removed [from the doors] so they were well-equipped.” 
“We'll strengthen the security (put in alarms and cameras) and we will have to review our insurance policies because I don't think they will stop!”
Photo: AFP
According to the most recent official statistics, there were more than 10,000 thefts reported from French farms in 2013, which represents a 66 percent increase in six years. 
Luc Smessaert who is on the administrative council of France's leading farmers union, the FNSEA told The Local that there was still more work to be done by the local gendarmerie and police to protect French producers and farmers.
“It's already a difficult time for them [farmers and producers], many of whom are struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “Wine, oysters, cheese…these are all highly valuable products.  
“Thieves need to remember that there are people working on these farms that need to live. It shows a complete lack of respect for what they do.”
Tackling the problem
In response to increasing pressure, in 2014 the French government introduced new measures to tackle the problem. 
The Agri Vigilance scheme introduced by the government with support from farmers unions and the police attempts to tackle the issue of thefts of valuable products and includes real time SMS warnings about thefts going on in the area. 
There are now regular police patrols at farms — even resorting to using night vision goggles when necessary — before and during harvest season. 
A police officer conducts a patrol by canoe of oyster beds in La Tremblade, southwestern France. Photo: AFP
In Champagne, police carry out horseback patrols particularly during harvest season and Christmas, in order to prevent thieves targeting the precious grapes.
And some local police forces like one in the Charente-Maritime area of southwestern France, have gone even further, carrying out patrols on kayaks day and night at oyster farms and using drones. 
“The area we patrol is so vast that we don’t necessarily know to whom each farm belongs to,” Police Squadron Leader Christophe Laferriere told NBC, adding that thanks to the flying device, they can take pictures of boats’ registration numbers.
Farmers union rep Smessaert told The Local: “Over the past two or three years the police have been taking the problem more seriously but they need to be better prepared because thieves are organised and equipped with new technologies.”
The 'spy oyster' by Flex Sense. Photo: AFP
“We're not here to do their job.”
And the police aren't the only ones trying to combat the problem. 
French start-up Flex Sense has even created a spy oyster device, which is hidden in the water among the real oysters and is able to send an SMS to the farmer when it's moved.
But while technology is a handy weapon for producers it doesn't seem enough to stop the determined food thieves.
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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!