By Alicia McCarty, USA TODAY

Theft of baby formula to be resold or used to cut illicit drugs is a burgeoning national problem, politicians and retail officials say.

Rhett Asher, vice president of industry relations for the Food Marketing Institute, says the thefts are part of a growing problem with organized retail crime.

Baby formula, he said, is a "staple" item for shoplifting rings because it is expensive and always in demand. For example, one can on Target's website ranges from $14 to $32.

Senators from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Minnesota and West Virginia announced legislation March 8 aimed at curbing organized theft of medical items, such as prescription drugs and formula.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the stolen formula not only poses health risks for babies, it is also used to mix cocaine and heroin. It is sometimes stored incorrectly or sold after it has expired. The bill is being finalized and will be introduced soon, said Larry Smar, deputy chief of staff for Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa.

Casey said formula theft is a national issue and the bill will increase penalties. "It's organized crime, and it's got a scope and breadth to it," he said.

Joseph LaRocca, of the National Retail Federation, said some stores lock up formula to deter theft. He said the federation's 2010 survey found that 89% of retailers were a victim of organized retail crime in the past year, and 59% had experienced an increase in organized retail theft.

A multistate ring that allegedly sold $135,000 worth of formula in Union City, N.J., was broken up in January.

In March 2010, the ringleaders of a Jefferson County, Colo., group pleaded guilty to stealing more than $20,000 of baby formula from the Denver and Colorado Springs areas.

Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spokesman Mark Techmeyer said the group targeted Walmarts. "They'd literally sweep the shelves with their arms," he said.


•In August, two men were arrested in Los Angeles in connection with a theft ring that allegedly stole more than $6 million worth of baby formula and other items, police said.

•In September, seven members of an alleged crime ring pleaded guilty to stealing $18,000 worth of formula in Texas.

•In February, a Kentucky couple were charged after they were found with $4,000 worth of stolen formula.