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Authorities seek to crack African cashew nut caper

On six occasions thieves stole cashews that had been imported raw to the U.S. from Africa and Vietnam, then roasted, salted and packaged in Fresno.

African cashew nut imports targeted by theives, California authorities zeroing in

FRESNO, Calif. (AFKI)  — Thieves in Northern California are making a run of cashew nuts processed by Caro Nut, a food production company here, which lost $1.2 million to nut thieves in 2015, alone.

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On six occasions thieves stole cashews that had been imported raw to the U.S. from Africa and Vietnam, then roasted, salted and packaged in Fresno.

A variety of nut thefts hit an all-time high in California in 2015, according to CargoNet, an alliance of cargo shipping firms and law enforcement agencies aimed at preventing losses, which totaled $4.6 million overall from 31 reported cases — more than the three previous years, combined.

Sophisticated organizations often use high-tech tactics, hacking into trucking companies to steal their identities, AP reported. They carry fake shipping papers, pose as truckers, and drive off with loads of nuts such as cashews, almonds, walnuts or pistachios — some worth $500,000 per load.

By the time a shipment fails to arrive at its intended destination, the nuts are already in another state or on a ship bound for Europe or Asia, where they command top dollar on the black market.

Africa accounts for 38 percent of global cashew production, but only 5 percent of global processing, according to Rita Weidinge, executive director of the African Cashew Initiative. Weidinge promotes local processing, which could add $2.8 billion dollars a year to Ghana’s GDP and provide up to 275,000 jobs in processing plants, GhanaWeb reported.

“To meet the demand for cashews, African production needs to grow on an average by 8 percent to 15 percent per annum from now to 2018 and beyond,” she said.

Growing cashew consumption worldwide has caused cashew exports and prices to skyrocket, resulting in a nearly 50 percent increase in the value of cashews shipments from Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa in 2015, according to Global Risk Insights. Indian and Asian markets are responsible for the surge in cashew demand.

In India, cashews are ground to a paste for curries and sweets. Local demand is increasing 15 percent annually and more than doubled since 2004 to 240,000 metric tons.

China’s Ministry of Finance reduced import tariffs for certain nuts at the beginning of 2015 as demand grew. Purchases have reached 50,000 tons, up from virtually zero a decade ago.

By June 30, 2015, Côte d’Ivoire’s cashew production reached a record 625,000 tons compared to 185,000 tons 10 years earlier. In 2016, the country hopes to produce 700,000 tons.

The value of nuts grown and processed in California has soared in recent years along with global demand in places like China and emerging economies, according to Global Risk Insights.

California produces more almonds, walnuts, and pistachios than any other state, with a combined value of $9.3 billion in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That got the attention of criminal organizations, who are exploiting weaknesses in the cargo shipping industry to reap big profits, said Dan Bryant, supervisory special agent for the violent and organized crimes programs of the FBI Sacramento office.

“It’s not just some teenage kids ripping off nuts,” Bryant said. “These are sophisticated people.”

California authorities are taking action. Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux expanded his agriculture crimes unit from two to six detectives in 2015.

Nut thieves “do tend to have some overseas connections,” said Scott Cornell, an investigator for Travelers Insurance and an expert on cargo thefts. “Wherever they can sell it and move it, they’re going to.”

Nuts are an easier target than other products such as electronics because there is no serial number and the evidence is gone once it is eaten, Cornell said.

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