“All in all 15,000 wheels have been stolen,” Riccardo Deserti, director of Italy's Parmesan Cheese Consortium, told La Stampa.
According to Deserti, Parmesan warehouses are soft targets for thieves, who can easily make off with thousands of euros worth of the cheese in each heist. Just one 40-kilogram wheel, aged 24 months, of cheese is worth €500.
“The problem is, we're talking about rural, artisanal producers, small businesses that are often not equipped with advanced anti-theft systems.”
Precious Parmigiano-Reggiano is only produced in the countryside surrounding the cities of Modena, Bologna, Reggio Emilia, Parma and Mantua in the Emilia-Romagna region.
The thieves modus operandi is always the same. They stake out isolated, rural warehouses and strike in the dead of night, loading the stolen merchandise into the back of vans and making a speedy getaway.
Last week, 150 wheels were taken from the Ronconcesi warehouse outside Parma. It was the second time the warehouse had been targeted in the last year.
“We think stolen cheese is taken to eastern Europe and southern Italy to be fenced,” a police spokesperson told La Stampa.
While each wheel carries a traceable watermark, thieves simply cut stolen cheese up to make it untraceable, before selling it at provincial markets.
In order to counteract the phenomenon, police are stepping up night patrols in countryside areas and stopping and searching vans in a bid to catch gangs of cheese robbers. They are also advising local manufacturers on how they can make their warehouses more secure.
A recent operation saw a gang from Albania and Puglia arrested, but experts say there is more to be done.
"The number of thefts has remained consistent," Deserti explained. "The main problem is that the warehouses are too accessible."