Cargo Theft: The New Highway Robbery

Boosting trucks laden with pharmaceuticals is a low-tech, low-risk road to riches for organized criminals

By Daniel Grushkin
Bloomberg Business Week, May 30 - June 5 2011

On June 17, 2009, Ricky Gene McNew pulled his plum-red big rig into a TravelCenters of America (TA) truck stop in Denmark, Tenn. McNew had been driving all afternoon, starting from Louisville (Ky.), and hauling $10 million in pharmaceuticals. He was bound for Memphis, to the warehouse of a medical supply wholesaler. McNew filled his tank and headed into the truck stop for a shower. When he came out, his truck was gone.

The thieves had stolen goods worth about 100 times the average taken in a bank robbery, and there wasn't a single witness . . .

. . . Thus began a chain reaction that threatened the nation's drug supply. The drugs were owned by the U.S. division of Tokyo-based Astellas Pharma. It was Astellas's first experience with a stolen truck, and a shock to the company's directors. On the advice of the Food & Drug Administration, they started calling everyone in the supply chain that night, from wholesalers to hospitals, to warn them that the stolen drugs might surface in their facilities. The lost truck had contained 18 pallets with 21 different medicines. They were concerned about the release of all the medicines, but an immunosuppressant called Prograf was especially troubling. The drug prevents patients from rejecting transplanted organs such as hearts, livers, and kidneys. The pills are sensitive to temperature and humidity, and if left in an uncooled trailer or warehouse, can fail and result in major complications for a transplant recipient.

Within a week, Astellas withdrew all the drugs on the marketplace from the same lots as those on the stolen load. Pills—even legitimate ones—in drugstores and hospitals nationwide had to be destroyed. The $10 million theft ballooned into a $47 million loss. It wiped out 10 percent of the company's North American sales for the quarter—a sudden, multimillion-dollar setback that's becoming increasingly common for companies who rely on America's highways.

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