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Nut industry aims to stop large-scale thefts – from the Modesto Bee

An almond tree.

An almond tree

By John Holland

First you steal a truck driver’s identity. Then you show up at an almond processing plant and make off with a semi load worth perhaps $100,000.

That happens more and more these days in the San Joaquin Valley’s nut industry, an expert told a Modesto audience Thursday.

Almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan companies are at risk from sophisticated thieves who know the industry and can elude security measures, said Scott Cornell, a cargo theft specialist with the Travelers insurance company.

“It’s high profit, low risk for them,” Cornell said at a summit on nut theft at the DoubleTree Hotel, sponsored by the Western Agricultural Processors Association and American Pistachio Growers.

The event happened on the same day the state Assembly Committee on Agriculture approved a bill that would create a task force to improve tracking and prosecution of people who steal nuts and other farm products by the truckload. It was introduced by Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank.

“Every coordinated and successful attempt at cargo theft is a direct hit on not only the pockets of hardworking farmers and farmworkers in California, but on our state’s economy,” Olsen said in a news release.

More than 30 nut cargo thefts were reported in the last six months, a loss of more than $10 million, said Roger Isom, president and CEO of the processor group.

Cornell said thieves create fake ID cards, insurance certificates and other documents and look for loads to steal on websites advertising per-trip trucking jobs.

“People believe that that (legitimate) guy picked up the load, when in fact it was a bad guy who picked up the load,” he said.

Dave Phippen, an almond grower and processor north of Ripon, said he supports the task force idea. His security measures already include a thumbprint from the hauler, a copy of the driver’s license and a photo of this person taken by one of Phippen’s employees.

“We pretty much interrogate the driver who comes here to pick up a load,” he said.

His company, Travaille and Phippen Inc., has not had a theft since 2006, when two semi containers with a total of about 88,000 pounds of almonds were taken. That time, the thieves broke through a fence.

Almonds, walnuts and pistachios are among California’s top farm products and have an even larger share of agricultural exports. They sell for much more per pound than, say, tomatoes or alfalfa, and global demand has boomed thanks to research on their health benefits.

Food and drink are the largest category for cargo theft at 31 percent, said summit speaker Cameron Roberts, a Long Beach attorney who specializes in transportation. Electronics is second at 12 percent.

Cornell, who is based in Phoenix, said cargo thieves used to ignore some low-value goods, such as pellets used in making plastics and clay used in construction. They have since found markets for them, he said.

Olsen’s measure, Assembly Bill 2805, passed the committee 10-0. It next goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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