Heists of meds and costly baby formula soar and feds worry about dangers to consumers.

Some well-organized gangs are showing the sort of criminal skill and chutzpa usually found only on the big screen as they thwart elaborate alarm systems, drop through warehouse roofs and empty shelves.  They aren’t stealing electronics or jewels. These nervy types are making off with millions of dollars worth of prescription drugs, baby formula and over-the-counter medications.

Phto by Pharma

Phto by Pharma

No one knows the precise number of these brazen thefts because shippers of the goods are not required to report the crimes, but experts say the crimes have been increasing every year, especially over the past three years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration thinks it’s a major issue and has sounded alerts to all players who manufacture, ship, store or sell these regulated items.

It’s not just the cash value of the larceny that’s at issue. Security experts from FDA, insurance investigators and state health departments are worried about the contraband being contaminated by mishandling; or mixed and sold with counterfeit drugs.

“There have been several cases where patients experienced adverse reactions from stolen drugs, reactions that were most likely due to improper storage and handling. We do not want to see this increase in thefts continue,” Michael Chappell,
 FDA’s acting Assistant Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs wrote in a letter to manufacturers, wholesalers and trade associations last week.

He reminded those whose shipments of FDA-regulated items were targeted by the thieves that these crimes threaten the public health because a product that has been taken from the “legitimate supply chain poses potential safety risks to consumers.”

In March alone, FDA reported several major thefts:

  • On March 14, Eli Lilly and Company reported one of the largest known drugs thefts.  Cases of antidepressants and anti-psychotics were stolen from a Lilly distribution center located in Enfield, Conn., when thieves cut through a warehouse roof and rappelled down, deactivated a sophisticated alarm, picked up drugs valued at about $75 million and fled.
  • The day before,  5,000 cases of Mead Johnson Nutrition’s infant formula products were stolen from a truck stop in Richwood, Ky.
  • On March 3,  generic over-the-counter products worth $400,000 were stolen from a truck near Dallas.

It is not just the cargo movers and warehouse that are targeted.

Last year, Orlando, Fla., police busted 21 people for stealing millions of dollars of baby formula – worth $25 to $46 a can – off the shelves of grocery, drug, big-box and discount stores in four counties. What’s worse, according to police statements at the time, the thieves changed the expiration dates on many of the cans before selling them at flea markets and on eBay.FDA_pharma

Some of the stolen loot is intercepted by Customs agents and major U.S. ports, but more frequently nefarious brokers will offer the bogus goods on the internet.

The biggest worry is that these stolen products, once reintroduced into the legitimate supply chain, are often accompanied by counterfeit products or products with improperly extended expiration dates.

It’s a frequent occurrence, says Benjamin England, a former FDA special agent and FDA lawyer, who now runs a consulting group called FDAimports.

He explains how the con is run: “Say I steal 250 bottles of an AIDS drug, but sell 500 bottles into the market, with the additional bottles being counterfeit or relabeled with an extended expiration date,” says England. “The stolen product acts as cover for the counterfeit or expired product.” (England said he saw this quite frequently when he was a federal investigator in Miami.)

Many of the criminal gangs in this line of work have concluded that it’s safer than pushing heroin and cocaine.

For a longer version of this story see what I wrote today for AOLNews.

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