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Spam heists in Hawaii prompt retailers to put the wildly popular canned meat in locked cases

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/19/2017 Fred Barbash
a can of soda: A “Hawaii collector’s edition” Spam can with a picture “spam musubi” is shown at a grocery store in Kailua, Hawaii in 2004. © Lucy Pemoni/AP A “Hawaii collector’s edition” Spam can with a picture “spam musubi” is shown at a grocery store in Kailua, Hawaii in 2004.

Last month in the Pearl City community on Oahu, Safeway customer Arlene Sua watched as a man suddenly grabbed eight cases of Spam and headed for the door. She thought “‘Okay, this isn’t real. No, he’s not going to take it, no, no,” she told KHON TV. 

But it was real. The man took off with the Spam and disappeared.

Elsewhere on the island at about the same time, three women loaded up shopping carts at a Long’s drugstore with 18 cases of — you guessed it — Spam. They made a rush for the exit.  Fortunately, an alert customer, Kurt Fevella, saw the attempted heist in progress, stationed himself at the door on Spam patrol and stopped them in their tracks. They shoved the carts toward at him and took off, Fevella told KITV4.

A shop at a downtown mall wasn’t so lucky. The Honolulu Police Department is now offering a $1,000 reward for a man (and an apparent accomplice) who entered a store on Oct. 3, grabbed a case of Spam and punched a security guard who attempted to stop him.

Police reported that the thief “fled in an unknown direction.”

These Spam snatchers are not hungry people desperate for Spam, said Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii. They are most likely part of a Spam black market that’s taking off in a state where the demand for Spam knows no bounds.

“It’s a staple,” Yamaki told The Washington Post.

The thefts have proliferated to the point that some businesses are putting Spam in plastic cases under lock and key, she said, along with the more conventional and more expensive shoplifting targets such as electronics, Gillette Power Fusion razor refills and, as it happens, canned corned beef, also popular in Hawaii.

a close up of a piece of cake on a table: Spam Musabi is seen in this Monday, Feb. 9, 2009 photo. © Larry Crowe/AP Spam Musabi is seen in this Monday, Feb. 9, 2009 photo.

To buy a can of Spam, you have to ask a salesperson to retrieve it.

Yamaki thinks Spam has become a form of currency, particularly for drug addicts in need of quick cash. With Spam selling for roughly $2.50 per 12-ounce can (depending on where in Hawaii you look), a thief who paid nothing for an 8-pack or a case of 12 can turn a decent profit underselling the retailers from whom they stole.

“It’s organized retail crime,” said Yamaki. “It’s not like ‘I’m going in to steal Spam to feed my family. I’m going in with a list of things I want to steal.’”

The thieves work in teams, one to distract onlookers, the others to “run out with Spam.”

“We hear a lot of rumors where it’s going,” Yamaki said. “We’ve heard they work through middlemen. We’ve heard that they’re selling it from the back of their cars. We’ve heard all kinds of rumors. Whether they’re true or not, I’m not sure.”

To some mainland Americans, this may all seem funny. But mainlanders often think of Spam either as junk email or a cheap meat that comes in a can and has no taste, which is true if you just eat plain Spam from a can. After all, how flavorful is a mixture of pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite?

But in Hawaii, nobody eats it plain out of the can. They eat “Spam fried rice,” or “Spam and eggs” or a Korean spam stew called budae jjigae and especially Spam musubi, a sushi-like snack of cooked rice, Spam and often teriyaki sauce all wrapped in seaweed. (Try it in Hawaii, you’ll like it, Anthony Bourdain once advised. “They love it,” he said. “They’ll make you love it.”)

And they eat it in vast quantities and have since World War II, when conventional meat was scarce and the thousands of GIs based in Hawaii ate the Hormel product as lunch meat.

Vendors sell Spam-themed merchandise in Honolulu. © AP Vendors sell Spam-themed merchandise in Honolulu.

Now Hawaii residents consume more per capita than any other state, some five million pounds a year, “six cans for every man, woman and child,” as National Geographic once noted with a dash of disapproval, commenting that “a 12-oz can is supposed to contain six servings, and each serving includes 25 percent of the U.S. recommended daily fat intake and 33 percent of a day’s sodium.”

But in Hawaii, they don’t make fun of Spam. They celebrate Spam, literally, with an annual “Spam Jam” in Waikiki.

But thefts of Spam in bulk, by the case, appear to be a relatively recent phenomenon, Yamaki said. She attributes the thefts to a state law enacted last year that changed the definition of a felony from a theft worth at least $350 or to one worth at least $750.

So a thief could make off with about 300 cans before risking a felony charge. “They steal right under” that $750 cutoff, Yamaki said.

That’s why the Oahu online publication, Honolulu Civil Beat, found cans of Spam locked up in a case at a Walgreens this week.

“Items electronically monitored for theft,” said the sign.

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