The theft of a trailer containing 40,000 lbs. of meat from an Ancaster shipping lot last week is the latest case in a serious, widespread but often unreported organized crime phenomenon — one that, according to industry estimates, costs Canadian companies in the billions of dollars per year. 

Related: 40,000 pounds of beef stolen in Hamilton

The theft of shipping cargo is a "huge, huge problem" in Canada," said Jennifer Fox, vice president, trade and security, of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

"We had one insurer say it was a $5-billion problem in Canada. I actually think that’s an understatement of how prevalent the problem is."

'Criminals who are looking into this are usually really well-organized.' - Jennifer Fox, Canadian Trucking Alliance

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, along with other industry stakeholders, sponsored a study on the phenomenon. Released in 2011, the report suggests thefts of large cargo loads are primarily orchestrated by those involved "organized crime."

"Criminals who are looking into this are usually really well-organized," said Fox. "You already have to have an established facility to take it to and an established buyer."

The most commonly targeted goods, she said, are "high-value loads" including electronics and pharmaceuticals, as well consumer goods, including foodstuffs.

Cargo theft, she added, differs from one part of the country to the next, and even varies with the change of the seasons.

"As winter approaches, loads of things like snow blowers and shovels go missing,” she said. “If they can sell it fast enough, they’ll steal it."

The products show up at discount vendors such as flea markets, often without the retailers knowing the goods had been obtained illegally. 

"Even the owner might not understand that products that they’re selling might be stolen goods," Fox said.

Push to improve monitoring

How quickly — and how often — the contraband changes hands is one of several key reasons why cargo theft is so difficult for law enforcement and industry officials to track.

Stolen Moosehead beer

Moosehead Breweries marketing director Matt Johnston recovers some cans of Moosehead beer from a stolen tractor trailer found in a trucking lot in Mississauga, Ont., on Sept. 21, 2007. (J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press)

Additionally, Fox said, reporting on the phenomenon is inconsistent in Canada. Trucking companies often choose not to report suspected incidents of cargo theft because they fear a hike in their insurance premiums. 

Moreover, victims don’t want to give off the impression that their security measures are somehow inadequate.

"We’re still fighting that kind of mindset today," said Fox.

As a result, in early September, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, along law enforcement officials and other industry stakeholders, launched Project Momentum, a campaign to raise awareness about cargo theft.

An aim of the initiative, Fox said, is to develop a task force on the reporting of cargo theft. 

"The means to the end has to be to capture the data."

Meat theft probe in 'early stages'

Hamilton police say they’re in the early stages of their probe into the Ancaster meat heist. 

"At this point, there’s still a lot of work to be done," said Const. Chris Gates of the police’s Break and Enter, Auto Theft and Robbery unit.

Though he said the theft of such a high volume of meat is rare, it’s also far from unprecedented.

Last October, two suspects were arrested in connection with the theft $10,000 worth of meat from trucking lot in Chatham. And the Ontario Provincial Police's Brant County detachment is investing the August disappearance of $5,000 worth of meat from a store in the community of St. George. 

Hamilton saw a failed attempt at a big meat theft earlier in 2013. In March, witnesses observed two men eyeing a truck parked at a Stoney Creek meatpacking facility. After realizing they were being watched, the suspects, police said, jumped into the truck, which contained over $100,000 worth of meat, and drove it away.

They went eastbound along the QEW but abandoned the truck, and fled after they were picked up by another vehicle.

In the Hamilton cases, Gates said, the perpetrators likely targeted the loads, rather than stealing whatever they could at random. 

"I’m sure they'd have a buyer lined up if they’re going to steal something like that." 

Asked whether he thought the Ancaster theft might be related to a black market for meat, Gates said, "I wouldn’t be able to comment on that right now."