Meat of the Matter: Beef thievery

Most Americans consider Canadians to be discreet, genteel and oh-so polite. But we share one cultural connection: thieves love beef, no matter what their citizenship.

As food prices continue to rise across all of North America, our Canadian cousins are getting hit hard.

According to a report by the Canadian CTV News online, there has been a significant increase in many cuts of meat over the last two years. Even worse, the average retail price of beef is expected to rise another 4% in 2016, according to the official government source Statistics Canada.

Certain popular beef cuts, in particular, have become quite pricey. Sirloin steak, for example, has gone up by 15.8%, prime rib roast up 8%, blade roasts up 8.2%, round steak up 7.8% and ground beef up 7.3%.

You get the idea.

Even the cost of what's called "stewing beef" has gone up by an average of 14.3% since 2014.

The reason for the inflated prices isn't a mystery. Canadian consumers are getting hit by the same tsunami that has driven up U.S. beef prices: High feed costs, coupled with a drought across the Plains states, have forced reductions in beef herd numbers, driving up wholesale prices as market demand exceeds sector supplies.

If there is a ray of sunshine in that scenario, it's that the industry should be encouraged that beef demand has stayed strong, despite the higher prices. However, high prices at the point of sale isn't a long-term trend that bodes well for any industry sector.

And high prices also result in some "collateral damage" — in this case, rising numbers of thefts.

According to CTV News, high beef prices "have caught the eye of thieves, including those involved in organized crime."

Organized bands of thieves are apparently targeting a series of supermarkets, stealing in quantity and then sell the meat "wholesale" to unscrupulous restaurateurs and bar owners.

"The [thieves] sell the meat on the black market, and that is a big problem for us now," Florent Gravel, president of Food Retailers Association of Quebec, told CTV News.

It's a variation on the time-honored underground sale of "discounted" products that fell off a truck — only in this case, the merchandise fell out of someone's pants.

The price of prevention

In order to cope with the increase in costly theft of beef products, many Canadian grocery store operators are resorting to a tactic that has become are commonplace in other retail sectors: placing electronic security tags on packaging that trigger an alarm if the alleged thief tries to exit the store.

"There is one [tag] in the package under the sticker," Bruno Ménard, vice president of supermarket chain IGA Louise Ménard. told CTV News, "(and) when there are boxes [of meat], we try to hide them in boxes."

(By the way, Louise Ménard is a real person. She has owned and operated supermarkets in Montreal for more than 30 years, starting out by acquiring a failing store and turning it around with progressive management and consumer-oriented marketing. Bruno Ménard, her son, now oversees the operations of five IGA-branded supermarkets in Montreal, employing 600 people and serving nearly 100,000 customers a week).

The standard tactic to foil the beef thieves is a costly solution: Installing electronic tags cost about a buck apiece. And even though a Canadian dollar is worth only about 70 cents U.S., that's a lot of money.

According to the story, many grocers are willing to make the investment in order to stop the losses incurred by the thefts.

That's disheartening, but it's also the ultimate compliment. For the animal activists who pretend that meat is falling out of favor, I'd ask the following question:

Anyone get caught organizing a ring of veggie burger thieves lately? ‚ñ°

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator