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Police have immediately reacted to the spate of pie stealing which has hit local dairies hard. Pinching pies is "rampant" according to one storekeeper who blames the return of students to the city for the upsurge in crime.
Senior Sergeant Nigel Hatter of the newly formed Pies Squad takes a different view.
"There’s no age limit on this sort of thing. We’ve arrested people as old as 49 and it just shows that pie addiction is not limited to the young."
Psychologist Ludwig Lofthouse agrees. "It’s not surprising that people are smuggling pies without paying. Pie eating becomes imperative for those who have succumbed to the taste of a good hot pie and with some quite basic pies now costing up to $4 the next fix has become unaffordable for many."
Snr Sgt Hatter paints a grim picture. "The gangs are even targeting selected types of pie they know will fetch a good price on the black market. Pepper steak pies in good condition are changing hands regularly in public bars in the city. The Pies Squad know who’s involved but more often than not the evidence has been swallowed before we can make an arrest. It’s very frustrating. At least in the Vice Squad you could always nab people in flagrante delicto, but with pies it’s ‘one gulp and she’s gone’. We’re working with Pies Anonymous who do a great job in getting people to give up but that’s a long-term approach."
The Ministry of Health, already hard-pressed with Covid and the rocketing cases of sexually transmitted diseases, says there is little it can do at the moment. A spokeswoman agreed that the burns reported after people have stuffed hot pies down their trousers are horrifying but so far emergency departments have coped. The more serious injuries have prompted fear of a decline in the birth rate but it will be some time before such an outcome can be quantified.
In desperation the Department has suggested that pie makers turn out less tempting products, but pie makers claim that changing their recipes would spell the end of some bakeries and would have a gut-wrenching effect on many smaller communities.
Otago Piemakers Association president "Mincer" McGuire wants his members to stand firm.
"Changing recipes is not the answer. Some small towns are justifiably proud of the taste of their pies. Imagine Roxburgh without the flavour of Jimmy’s pies or Palmerston having to do away with McGregor’s mutton pies? The mutton pies may be made in Timaru now, but for Palmerstonians they are as much part of the town as the McKenzie monument, just a bit smaller. And what about Waipiata? That town is built on pies. No, there must be no tampering with the product."
It’s believed that one of Dunedin’s most successful pie companies, Who Ate All The Pies, has been immune from the outbreak as usually their pies are marketed in sizes far too large to be pocketed or stuffed down the trousers, but Snr Sgt Hatter believes the criminal element will soon have bigger pockets and large-capacity trousers.
"Never underestimate the cunning of the criminal mind," he warned, adding that tightening up the law is the only way to go. He suggests that, while putting an age limit on pie customers would not work, at least something could be done to make them more secure.
"We’ve talked to shopkeepers about storing pies in special locked spaces behind the counter. Preferably with pies not visible to the customers. Just like cigarettes. Having to ask for a pie rather than slipping it into your pocket as you pass the open displays would certainly help. And raising the taxes on pies would be great. When a mince pie hits $40 a throw you can be sure pie addicts will give up the habit, just like the smokers."
In the meantime, the Pies Squad will step up corner dairy patrols and will insist that the well-established tradition of slipping a few free pies to the uniform men during night patrols will be discouraged.
"Tough on the constables, but we have to be seen to be squeaky clean," Snr Sgt Hatter commented.
The Prime Minister, when approached for comment, was unaware of the outbreak.
"I haven’t had a pie since I was a student, and I can assure you I paid for it."
Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins was more forthcoming. "This government, as always, is shying away from the important issues. National will reintroduce the death penalty for pie pinching. Then, just watch the crims backing off and making do with stolen sausage rolls and custard squares."
Perhaps the last word should be left to reformed pie stealer, Rosemary Gluten.
"Pies? I’m fine without them. I just cry myself to sleep every night."
- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.