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Spy oysters and night-vision goggles: How France is fighting back against food thieves

by Alice Tidey /  / Updated 

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Night-vision goggles, drones, patrols on kayak: French authorities are deploying a wide range of resources to prevent robbers from targeting gourmet delights including oysters, cheese and wine.

Earlier this month, a cheese producer in the Puy-de-Dome region woke up to find that 10,000 euros ($12,200) worth of Saint-Nectaire — a semi-soft cow cheese — had been stolen.

Oyster farmers are also heavily impacted. The mollusk is a popular delicacy at Christmas and a spate of thefts are usually reported every year in the lead-up to the holiday season.

"We increasingly have to protect ourselves"

"We increasingly have to protect ourselves"

Last month, an oyster farm on the Ile de Ré — a small island off the country's west coast — reported the theft of about 1,800 lbs of his product. Two months earlier, 15,000 pounds of oysters were stolen from a farm in southwest France. That loss was estimated at around 35,000 euros ($43,000).

Vineyards across the country aren't spared, either. In September, two chateaux in the Bordeaux area had a significant number of their grapes harvested earlier than expected by thieves in the night. The spoils were once again estimated to be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

“Everything and anything that has a commercial value in the agricultural sector is now targeted,” said Veronique Richez-Lerouge, president of a cheese producers’ association. "We increasingly have to protect ourselves."

According to the most recent official statistics, there were more than 10,000 thefts reported from French farms in 2013, a 66 percent increase from five years earlier.

Faced with the ire of the agricultural sector — which accounts for just 1.7 percent of the country's economic output but possesses outsized political influence — the French government adopted a plan to tackle the phenomenon in early 2014.

Law enforcement now regularly patrols farms on foot, bike or horseback before and during harvest season. At night, they do so equipped with night-vision googles.

Luc Smessaert, vice-president of the country’s powerful farmers’ union, FNSEA, says those measures have largely worked.

“For the past two years, we’ve noticed a sharp decline of thefts in our farms,” Smessaert told NBC News.

 Police officers on horseback patrol an oyster farm in Gefosse-Fontenay, France. AFP / AFP/Getty Images file

Each region has its own plan tailored to its local agriculture. The “plan Champagne,” like most wine-producing areas, also includes an increased number of patrols deployed in the lead-up to Christmas to prevent the thefts of cases and bottles of the precious nectar from producers’ cellars.

In Charente-Maritime, where 30,000 tons of oysters are produced every year, police Squadron Leader Christophe Laferriere and his team patrol oyster farms aboard kayaks day and night. They also deployed a drone last year “for a big operation.”

Thanks to the flying device, they can take pictures of boats’ registration numbers.

“The area we patrol is so vast that we don’t necessarily know to whom each farm belongs to,” Laferriere said.

Last year, 190,00 pounds of oysters were stolen from this part of France. In 2012, that number was 80,000 pounds.

A text-messaging system has also been developed to alert every farmer of suspicious activity in their area.

“It’s a proper partnership,” Smessaert said, highlighting the “great efforts” made by law enforcement.

Still, every few months another big robbery grabs the headlines.

 The Flex Spy is a fake oyster that alerts farmers when it's taken out of the water to prevent thefts of the expensive mollusks. Flex Sense

As the issue persists, the private sector has also awakened to the problem, with one start-up now producing a spy oyster.

The device looks like a mollusk and is submerged with the real ones, Emmanuel Parlier, founder of start-up Flex Sense explained to NBC News. However, “it sends a text message to the farmer when it’s moved and taken out of water.”

The firm is now working with a drone company to check on production when the spy oyster is triggered and to take pictures of the thieves and their boats’ registration numbers.

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