Two weeks ago, early on Sunday morning, Scott walked out of a supermarket on the outskirts of Leicester with two joints of beef, 14 packs of chicken breasts and four beef steaks stuffed into his coat and trousers. Making it to the street, he walked round the corner to a local garage and sold the lot for £30.
Scott used the cash to buy a couple of bags of heroin and a rock of crack, while the mechanics took some choice cuts take back to their families for Sunday dinner. Back in the supermarket, the shelves were restocked.
Scott managed to lift and sell all that meat without anyone noticing – well, until the shop's sales and takings were tallied up at the end of the month – but many aren't so fortunate; every couple of weeks there are reports of heroin users appearing in magistrates courts throughout the UK after being caught stealing meat.
Shoplifting is on the rise, and considering a slab of pork belly in your coat pocket is a little less conspicuous than, say, a boxed and tagged digital camera, it's no surprise the most recent Global Retail Theft Barometer study identified meat as one of the most commonly stolen items from supermarkets. It's got so bad, in fact, that some places have resorted to tagging and boxing their meat because it keeps on walking out the door.
With a recession and rising prices – these days a leg of lamb costs around £20 to £30 – meat has become a luxury many can't afford, unless, of course, it's nicked by someone willing to take the risk. But this is a phenomenon driven by heroin, not hunger.
"Back in the day it was electric toothbrushes and razors, but now meat is the go-to product to steal," says Scott, a 42-year-old heroin and crack user who's taking me on a walk through Leicester's city centre supermarkets. "I need to do all my shoplifting before 10AM – before I start rattling – so on the average day I'll get up at 7AM. Some shops don't bother with security until 10AM because they think all the heroin addicts are lazy and still in bed."
Walking into a Sainsbury's he quickly appraises the meat shelves, picking up a leg of lamb priced at £21. "This is what you want," he says. "Stick this down your trousers, sell it down the pub and that's a bag of heroin right there." He puts it back on the shelf, although already we've got a security guard eyeing us up. "Legs of lamb are harder to get – popular with everyone, a joint of meat makes people feel good; they can bring it home to the family." Next he scoops up 10 packs of high-end bacon: "This would just go down my coat. I'd tuck my body warmer into my belt so it doesn't fall out." He says he prefers the vacuum-packed bacon over the stuff sold in plastic trays because he can fit twice as many down under his coat.
Through the eyes of a meat thief, you begin to look at supermarket produce in a completely different way; it's all about the bulk-price-quality ratio. Scott picks up a whole roast chicken in disgust. "Look how big and heavy that is, and it's only £4.50, so I'd get about £2," he says. "I don't bother with minced meat or sandwich ham – it's just too cheap and no one wants to buy it."
I ask him for his top five meat products to steal. They are:
1. Joint of beef or lamb
2. Chicken breast, legs and thigh
3. Beef steak
4. Pork chops
5. Sausages and bacon
("When there's fuck all left, I'll take the ham – posh ones.")
For heroin users who want a steady stream of reliable income, meat is best. It's easy to nick and quick to sell in comparison, for instance, to electrical items, which are harder to steal and necessitate a trip to Cash Converters if you want to unload them.
"People can see the price and the sell by date. I get half the sale price for it, which is good – a lot of other things you have to sell on for less," says Scott. "Everyone needs meat, but it's expensive, so people are tempted. Once I was in Co-op and I'd stuffed a load of posh hams costing £6 down my coat, but they had fallen out the bottom onto the floor right in front of this old lady. I swear she was not a day younger than 70. She picked them up, gave them back to me and said, 'If you're selling them, I'll meet you outside,' and she bought the lot."
Scott sells his contraband in pubs, market stalls, taxi offices and building sites. Sometimes he'll stop people in the street and ask them, but only if they look right. Other meat thieves go door knocking around their local council estates with a bag full of meat. Scott and the thousands of other meat stealers out there are part of a huge hidden black market that operates in every town and city in Britain – a semi-criminalised zone of betting shops, boozers and shop "fronts" where people without 9 to 5 jobs find work, buy and sell illicit goods, and generally get by.
"The people who buy it are people who don't have much money," Scott says. "I have a few regular pubs I sell meat in; most of the pubs where I sell meat are estate pubs. In some of them the landlord will ask for first refusal before he lets me offer it to his customers. Sometimes I have to sneak in and sell it without the manager knowing."
READ ON BROADLY: A Life in Boxes: What it's Like Being Homeless for Ten Years
The selling of meat in pubs – these days mainly by heroin users – isn't anything new, which is perhaps why it's tolerated in many working class areas. One pub in London's East End in the 1960s was known as "Dewhursts", after the chain of butcher shops, because it sold so much meat that had been diverted from the docks.
For Scott, meat theft is strictly professional: he never eats the meat he steals. Oddly, when he goes shopping for himself he does it on "pay day", when he gets his giro, and he pays at the counter.
Scott, born in Leicester, tells me he's been thieving off and on for the 12 years he's been struggling to kick a £50 to £100-a-day heroin and crack addiction. He steals five out of seven days a week, and on each of those days he'll average 20 packets of meat with a face value of about £75, which he'll sell on for half of that. He also steals cheese, spirits and household goods, but meat is his staple. I ask him how many times he's been sent to jail for shoplifting. "I've lost count, but let's say more than 20 times."
Last year Scott got 36 weeks for stealing meat from Tesco and booze from Co-op. "Co-op is the best place to steal because they have a no-chase policy," he says; once you're out the door, that's it. He's got banning orders from most of the supermarkets in Leicester and is barred from all Tescos. "Technically I can get done for burglary for just going into a Tesco shop," he says, "but that doesn't stop me from going in."
We're joined at this point by former meat stealer Luke, who quit thieving when he turned 30 a few years back because he stopped using heroin. He's had 60 shoplifting convictions, although he says he was caught "one in every 100 times". Luke stole meat because he said he was too much of a "skinny white boy" to make a living out of selling heroin, "because I was too much of a target to rob off".
The best pubs to sell meat in, Scott and Luke tell me, are the ones selling cheap drinks. Because JD Wetherspoon is a chain, they say, you have to be sneaky in there. Scott and Luke show myself and the photographer a few city centre pubs they have openly sold meat in before, but when I chat to the managers they deny all knowledge.
"We get at least a couple of people a day coming in here trying to sell meat, but I tell them to go away," says the landlady of the Hansom Cab. "It's a common thing in most pubs round here, though."
At the Nine Bar, situated in the student quarter, the manager, Ben, tells me that the meat sellers take advantage of the outside seating and sell packs of bacon to the students, "probably for their hangovers the next day". He tends to ignore them, though, because they don't hassle people and they're not aggressive.
Jude Duncan, manager at the Criminal Justice Drugs Team in Leicester, has 450 heroin users on her books and admits the majority of them steal to feed their habits. She says that meat is "a big one", but also gets calls from the large Tesco store complaining of people stealing while visiting the pharmacy sections for supervised methadone scripts.
"For a lot of these heroin users, stealing gives them a purpose – it's like having a job," she says. "The cat and mouse game gives them a buzz. But it's a sad indictment of society that people can't afford to buy meat at proper prices and people are selling it out of their trousers."
Interested in drugs? The Global Drug Survey 2016 has just launched. Go here to have your voice heard in the global drug debate.
More on VICE: