Thieves are targeting supermarket meat counters to profit from rising prices, according to a report in the Financial Times.
Small scale thefts have escalated into more organised crime in light of inflation and the expansion of the meat export market.
Figures commissioned by the Financial Times from the UK's Centre for Retail Research – which compiles the annual Global Retail Theft Barometer – show that supermarkets' "shrinkage" rates for fresh meat rose from 2.64% in 2010 to 2.89% in 2011, a hike of 9.5%.
While a small portion of shrinkage – the amount delivered to a shop against the amount sold – can be put down to administrative errors, experts believe that the rest is due to theft. The newspaper reports that a rise of nearly 10% for meat is a sharp uplift compared with the overall UK retail theft shrinkage rate of 6.2%.
A rapid increase in global appetites for meat coupled with poor weather conditions for farmers, such as harsh winters and widespread droughts, has pushed up the price of meat and could see it rise further.
Professor Joshua Bamfield, director at the Centre for Retail Research, speaking to the FT, said his talks with supermarkets indicate that meat is being stolen as part of a professional operation for an organised market. "The quantities being stolen, all at the same time and of the same type, suggest that it's being done to order," Prof Bamfield said.
It is reported that retail parks and shops near good transport links are particularly at risk. Although supermarkets are reluctant to admit to a meat theft problem there are reports of increased security staff and tagging of select meat items at certain stores.
Black market beef
In addition to evidence of organised crime, other factors are thought to be contributing to a rise in small scale theft. Crime is taking place in a similar way to other high value commodities such as lead, copper and gold, and customers are now more willing to take hot goods off thieves' hands.
Tough times are seeing consumers resort to measures they may previously never have considered, with high unemployment coupled with a wage squeeze and rising food price inflation leading to a hike in illicit cut-price purchases of stolen meat.