Coffee becomes new currency of crime

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The jar of instant coffee has suddenly become a desirable trading commodity for loan sharks and small-time drug dealers in a trend which mirrors the surge in demand for coffee on the international markets.

A sharp rise in the price of instant coffees has made them a target for thieves who are stealing to order to pay off their debts from high-interest loans or drugs.

The British Retail Consortium and the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) said yesterday that the pattern had been identified in cities across Britain.

Michael Schuck, the consortium's assistant director of retail crime, said: "People see coffee going up in the shops and it becomes more of a marketable commodity than other goods like shampoos, batteries or razors. Coffee is a fairly expensive commodity. You can quite easily steal four jars of coffee and put them in a coat, a bag or underneath a baby."

Mr Schuck, a former police officer, said there was an organised racket in large drums of instant coffee being stolen to order from supermarket shelves. "They are sold on to hotels, restaurants and cafes," he said.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said that such pilfering had recently been reported in Bradford, Merseyside, London and Greater Manchester. "This stealing of coffee is a new idiosyncratic twist to a long-standing scandal of stealing to order. Debtors are being encouraged to shoplift whichever goods are currently the most easy to fence."

Extreme cold weather in Brazil has hit coffee production this year, triggering a frenzy of buying by speculators which has forced prices to a 20-year high. Forecasts of more cold weather led to another 7 per cent rise on the New York market yesterday, where coffee closed at 253.30 cents a pound, compared to less than 100 cents in December. At one point late last month, the price reached 318 cents, the highest level since the 1970s when freezing weather forced Brazilian producers to relocate entire coffee plantations to warmer areas.

As a result of the increase, the price of coffee also rose in the shops. Nestle put up the price of its 100g jars of Gold Blend by 17p to pounds 2.54 late last month.

The price rises have done little to arrest the coffee revolution which has led to a boom in American-style coffee houses and Italian espresso bars.

The Seattle Coffee Company will this week open its 24th branch, only two years after two Seattle exiles set up their first shop in Covent Garden. It now has outlets in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Cambridge and Swindon.

Louie Salvoni, vice-chairman of the Cafe Society, which represents the ground coffee industry, said: "The UK market is being targeted by all the major coffee producers of the world because of its potential. We are still European-led in our taste and profile but there is a movement towards latte because of the advent of American coffee concepts."

Yet while the coffee cognoscenti argue over the relative merits of robusta and arabica beans and the price of cappuccino and espresso makers, the jar of instant has become so sought-after in some areas that is being placed under protection.

In one shop in Greenock, near Glasgow, so many jars have been stolen that they are placed out of reach alongside the warning: "Coffee behind counter due to criminal activity."

Tom Ward, a solicitor in the town, has had to represent a succession of clients arrested after stealing jars of coffee to order as a way of paying off debts.

He said: "The price of coffee is such now that it's expensive, it's easy to lift and easy to sell on. That's the attraction of it."

Last week, as a young mother accused of shoplifting seven jars of high quality coffee appeared before a court in Greenock, the sheriff Sir Stephen Young, exclaimed: "Oh no, not coffee again."