BEEF retail prices are now very close to an all-time high but still at-home consumption continues to grow.
While some analysts, and butchers, believe prices can not go higher without significant consumer backlash, there appears to be little to support the likelihood of the cost of steaks and mince easing in the near future.
In fact, at a time of skyrocketing cattle prices and strong global demand for Australian beef, processors say domestic consumers have been shielded from far higher prices due to the need to retain abattoir workforces.
Rabobank calculations from quarter one Consumer Price Index figures for Australia show that the average Australian retail price for beef was $23.87 a kilogram.
Senior animal proteins analyst Angus Gidley-Baird reports beef has seen some of the largest price jumps of all the meats. It has increased 8.4 per cent on quarter one 2020 rates and 17.9pc on the same period in 2019.
AC Nielsen Homescan data combining supermarket and butcher beef sales shows the retail price of beef per kilogram has increased 12pc cent year-on-year.
Many wholesalers and butchers say those sort of hikes can not be sustained, particularly against declining prices in other animal proteins.
Queensland processor Terry Nolan goes as far as to say there is now a real risk of 'a generation of young consumers being weaned off beef'.
However, industry data points to a definite resilience on the part of beef.
Meat & Livestock Australia reports beef consumption has lifted 4.1pc year-on-year in value terms, driven by an increase in shopper spend on each trip.
Shoppers were spending 8pc more on each shopping trip, MLA insights and strategy manager Scott Cameron said.
In volume terms, beef purchases fell only slightly over the 12 month period.
These figures account for at-home consumption only. Of course, food service beef consumption has declined on the back of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions.
"Beef has proven the most resilient of the proteins," Mr Cameron said.
By comparison, at-home chicken consumption value has declined by 4.9pc over the quarter ending June 13, 2021, despite the retail price increasing only marginally by 30 cents a kilogram.
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Mr Nolan, whose family-owned Nolan Meats at Gympie supplies grain-fed beef to both domestic and international markets, said the key driver of high beef retail prices was the shortage of cattle and subsequent phenomenal rise in the cattle market.
"We now have the lowest herd we've had in many decades and rebuilding is happening. There is at least a 25pc undersupply," he said.
Processors were paying prices for livestock that meant they were incurring big losses on every beast.
However, they were continuing to do that out of a fear of losing their workforce permanently, Mr Nolan explained.
"Already, most processors have significantly cut back shifts but we are petrified that longer stand-downs will mean workers are lost for good, so we are continuing to process and put meat into the domestic wholesale market below cost."
Processors, wholesalers and food retail analysts all agree the beef retail price is at a precarious point.
"Unless cattle prices go down, the retail beef price has to go up," Mr Nolan said.
"This is a set of circumstances we've never seen before. How much more consumers will absorb higher prices is the unknown."
While supermarkets would also be feeling the pressure of high livestock prices, agents report their custom at saleyards has not waned greatly - another factor keeping upward pressure on cattle prices.
Lessons learned during pandemic lockdowns about the value Australians place on fresh red meat would be underpinning this, analysts say.
It has not been as intense as last year, but this latest round of lockdowns has once again spurred the same trend in supermarkets and butcher shops of panic buying red meat, particularly mince.
It did seem this time around, however, supermarkets in particular were willing to wear a short period of out-of-stocked items, perhaps cautious about finding themselves having to heavily discount products like mince on the other side of the frenzy as was the case last year.
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