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updated 8/25/2011 7:46:26 AM ET 2011-08-25T11:46:26

You know beef has gotten expensive when people start stealing it. That's what happened a couple of weeks ago in Austin, Texas, when six men shoplifted raw meat from a large grocery store by shoving it down their pants. According to USA Today, "meat thieves — organized groups who target steaks and high-end cuts at supermarkets for resale to unscrupulous restaurants and markets — are a growing problem."

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The Austin heist is small compared to the 41,350 pounds of ground beef — worth $95,000 — stolen from a truck stop in Louisiana in February, when a driver briefly left his 18-wheeler unattended.

Lt. Rickey Morgan of the Geneva, Ala., police force, which investigated the incident, told USA Today that thieves can easily identify meat inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because the product is transported on trucks with unique tags on the vehicle's exterior. "You'll have folks that ride around truck stops, they'll see the tag and they know it's some type of meat product. It may be hamburger, it may be steaks, they don't know, but they know it's a high-dollar load."

Although a raw-meat crime ring probably doesn't have the makings of a blockbuster movie, it does speak to the fact that beef is getting more expensive. Between March 2010 and March 2011, retail beef prices grew 13 percent, or 52 cents per pound, according to CattleFax, an industry research organization. That represents the largest 12-month gain since 2004. Prices for some cuts of meat have increased even more, including top sirloin, which is up 34 percent.

Feed prices up
There are a numerous explanations for the rising prices. For starters, says Sara Baker, public relations manager at Sageworks, a financial analysis firm, "the price of feed is going up ... corn prices, for example, are nearing a record high," as is hay, another key component of cattle feed.

Not only have the rising grain prices increased the overall cost of raising cattle, they've also motivated some ranchers to simply exit the beef business entirely, in turn reducing the supply.

"With very high grain prices in the last several years, a lot of farmers and ranchers have plowed up their hay land and gone to row crops [like grains]," explains John Ginzel of the Linn Group, a commodity market analysis firm. "This is across a lot of southern areas especially, where the smaller producers liquidated their beef cattle herds and went to row crops and wheat to generate greater revenue."

Further complicating matters is the severe drought plaguing the southern part of the country. Texas, for example, is in the throes of its 10 driest months in more than a century, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Other traditional ranching states, including Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, also are suffering from a lack of rainfall.

As a result, land traditionally available as pasture for grazing cattle is now unusable. Some ranchers have been able to salvage their livestock by taking the animals to market earlier than planned. But others have had to slaughter entire herds for lack of pasture land.

Exports rising
At the same time that production is shrinking, American meat exports are growing. "The cheap dollar has stimulated red meat exports," Ginzel explains. "Also, we have strong growth in beef and pork due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in South Korea, creating strong demand in Japan, Vietnam and other countries."

As demand abroad continues to boom, American consumers are feeling the pain from the rising cost of beef at the grocery store. Trevor Amen of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Beef Checkoff Program has advice for balancing your beef budget.

"You can buy in bulk — either buy a larger piece and cut it up into steaks, or buy a larger package — and learn how to extend those larger purchases for more meals throughout the week [by using recipes] or put some in the freezer. You can get a lower price per pound on bulk." Additionally, Amen suggests looking for coupons and advertised specials.

So the good news is that you can still find deals on beef. The bad news, at least according to Ginzel, is that prices will climb further before they come down. Which means that we beef eaters have the opportunity to put into practice nutritionists' favorite saying: all things in moderation.

If you want to learn more about the nutritional content of various cuts of meat, check out this tasty Interactive Meat Case, which simulates the shopping experience to help you pick the best cut of meat for your needs.

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