September 21st, 2011
01:08 AM GMT
(CNN) - Cigarettes used to be the bounty of choice for shoplifters keen to turn a quick profit.
Now gangs of “modern day rustlers” are targeting supermarkets for prime cuts of meat to sell on the black market, according to police in Tasmania, Australia.
“Years ago, there used to be rustlers. They used to go out and steal cattle, cut them up on the side of the road, in paddocks, take the meat and sell it. Our lot are a lot lazier,” says Detective Inspector David Plumpton.
“These days, these modern day rustlers, they just go straight into a supermarket. It’s already packed, and they’ve just got to put it straight into the frying pan.”
According to the police, shoplifters have been working in teams to target supermarkets in the island state. Accomplices act as lookouts while the main culprit slips some of the red stuff into a trolley, or whatever else is to hand.
“We’ve had them taking prams in, loading prams up and then just wheeling the prams out," Plumpton says.
Like cigarettes once were before retailers started hiding them behind the counter, meat is a high value product that's readily accessible and easy to sell on.
While local media has presented the thefts as a mini crime-wave, Plumpton says it’s been happening for some time.
“My belief is that supermarkets with their CCTV cameras have caught more people and as a result are calling us more,” he says.
The disappearance of meat from shelves is of course a blow to Australian retailers who are already dealing with a drop in consumer demand.
But for beef producers, who are struggling with one of the industry's biggest crises, the casual theft of their product must be truly galling.
Earlier this year, the Australian government slapped a temporary ban on live exports to Indonesia after shocking footage emerged of the mistreatment of animals at local abattoirs.
Live exports resumed in July, but in the recent words of Warren Truss, the leader of the Australian National Party, “The pain and the hardship has not been washed away.”
To add to producers' woes, Australian domestic retail beef prices have eased of late due to a combination of poor export markets, rising imports and discounting by major supermarkets, according to Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA).
MLA economist Tim McRae says domestic prices are a function of export demand, as two-thirds of the meat the country produces is sent offshore.
He predicts prices will steady or rise slightly next year, a forecast which offers no incentive for light-fingered meat lovers to pack up their prams.
As Detective Inspector Plumpton suggests, it’s just as well supermarkets in Tasmania aren’t allowed to sell alcohol.
“Once alcohol can be sold in supermarkets they’ll be walking out with filet mignon and half a dozen bottles of red wine,” he says.
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