Fed up with losing a fortune every year in stolen fruit, the California Avocado Commission’s board of directors has put more teeth in the industry’s crime fighting program.

The maximum reward available from the Irvine-based commission for information leading to an arrest, a conviction and/or recovery was increased to $5,000. The board also voted to establish an Avocado Theft Reporting Hotline and e-mail address to help collect information about thefts.

The reporting methods are designed to close a gap in the fight against avocado theft, said Tom Bellamore, president.

California industry gets tougher on combating avocado thefts“We believe most of the thefts are not reported,” he said, “but it’s believed that at least $1 million worth of avocadoes is stolen every year.”

By adding the hotline and the e-mail address, the commission wants to provide improved documentation to the authorities, Bellamore said.

“Law enforcement is doing what it can, but the officers are at a disadvantage because no one really knows how much of this is going on,” he said.

The thefts run the gauntlet from a few pounds to large-scale operations committed by what Bellamore said may be organized theft rings.

“There have been reports where a grove is virtually stripped in a very short period of time, and it takes people to do that,” he said.

Patrick Lucy, director of organic sales for Del Rey Avocado Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., has seen the results of a major theft right across the road from one of his company’s groves near Bonsall in San Diego County.California industry gets tougher on combating avocado thefts

“A lot of their trees were just completely stripped,” he said. “After that happened, we stripped most of the lower lying fruit in our grove.”

The theft problem has forced Del Rey Avocado to invest in fencing that completely surrounds its groves, especially in more remote areas, Lucy said.

“With the price of avocadoes, I’m surprised we haven’t heard of more thefts,” he said.

More thefts seem to occur in the southern growing region — San Diego and Riverside counties — rather than the more densely populated Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, Bellamore said.

Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing for Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., came close to witnessing a theft on his own land a few years ago. Wileman arrived at his grove to start irrigation water, he said, when he came upon a strange car surrounded by several piles of avocados — about 200 pounds of the fruit.

“I guess I surprised them,” Wileman said. “They just ran off and abandoned the car.”

One ironic aspect of the theft problem this season is California’s lower than normal volume.

“Because of the smaller crop, the thieves have to work harder to get enough fruit,” Wileman said.

Where the thieves market the stolen avocadoes is something of a mystery, but Lucy has his suspicions.

“There are so many fruit stands popping up selling bags of 25 avocadoes for $5,” he said. “You have to wonder where they find these avocadoes.”

Bellamore also suspects some of the fruit is being sold to small, independent restaurants. As for large-scale thefts, Bellamore believes they may be well-planned at both ends.

“Not only would the theft, itself, be well-orchestrated, but you’d think that to unload that volume of fruit there must have been some thought given to the receiving end,” he said.