Record high steaks: Why Australian beef has become so expensive

Bistecca's signature bistecca alla fiorentina
Bistecca's signature bistecca alla fiorentina  Photo: James Brickwood

Budget-conscious steak lovers may need to forgo the scotch fillet and sirloin in 2021 with the price of Australian beef reaching a record high.

A combination of local climatic conditions and consequences of the global pandemic has caused the retail price of prime beef to skyrocket. According to data from industry body Meat and Livestock Australia, domestic cattle prices have been the highest in the world since June.

"In the past six months, our beef prices have jumped $10 to $15 kilogram," says Fabian Caminiti, co-owner of Melbourne steak restaurant Charcoal Grill on the Hill. 

Bistecca co-owner Warren Burns says large steaks designed to share represent better value for diners.
Bistecca co-owner Warren Burns says large steaks designed to share represent better value for diners. Photo: Sam Mooy

"Sure, we have been able to put our menu prices up by a few bucks, but in this time of COVID, customers are struggling, so we haven't passed on the full whack. It is affecting our bottom line." 

The price rise in beef starts in the cattle yards. In late 2020, the Eastern Young Cattle Indicator – the price gauge for live cattle sales – saw the price surge to almost $8.30 a kilogram. In January last year, that figure was below $5. 

"There are multiple drivers pushing cattle prices to this historic high," says Meat and Livestock Australia managing director, Jason Strong. 

Bistecca executive chef Pip Pratt cuts steak to order at the Sydney CBD restaurant.
Bistecca executive chef Pip Pratt cuts steak to order at the Sydney CBD restaurant. Photo: Sam Mooy

"Our nation's cattle numbers are the lowest they have been in 20 to 30 years due to the last drought. But good rains on the eastern seaboard have seen good pasture, therefore farmers are restocking their herds, pushing prices up." 

Strong adds the ongoing global demand for protein following the African swine flu outbreak in China, combined with COVID-19 disruptions to beef processing in the US, has put strong pressure on domestic beef prices. 

"What we have to understand is that here in Australia, we produce some of the best quality beef in the world, and that there is global demand for that beef," he says. "Local steak lovers are competing with consumers in Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul and Los Angeles." 

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Strong says that the foodservice industry, including high-end restaurants, is responding by offering different cuts cooked using modern methods. 

"Take oyster blade. It's a flavoursome cut that, when the seam of connective tissue [gristle] is removed, becomes the very tender flat-iron steak." 

He says some other lower-priced steaks such as bolar blade (a tougher cut from the shoulder) are being trimmed and slow-cooked in vacuum bags and then finished on the grill. 

Bistecca executive chef Pip Pratt.
Bistecca executive chef Pip Pratt. Photo: SAM MOOY

"You can still put a steak on the plate for $3," says James Madden from Melbourne-based meat distributor Flinders + Co with a hint of derision. "But you will be chewing on it until Easter. You get what you pay for. 

Consumers keen on scotch fillet are "paying through the nose" says Madden. Indeed, in some supermarkets, steak shoppers have been forking over almost $50  a kilogram for the tender prime cut. 

Madden says high beef prices are changing the way steak is being marketed too.

"Supermarkets prefer beef from yearlings – younger, smaller cattle. This means they can present a prepackaged set of smaller steaks that look good. Perhaps the steaks are cut a little thinner, but they don't appear to break the budget."

He says that with yearling beef being soaked up by the supermarkets, the restaurant industry had moved towards steaks from older cattle where the emphasis is on flavour and cuts big enough to share. 

Sydney restaurateur Warren Burns, co-owner of CBD restaurant Bistecca, has based his business on the concept of the shared steak. Bistecca is the Italian word for a thick-cut T-bone traditionally shared  among several diners. 

Burns' customers order their bistecca by weight. The steaks are cut to order using a meat saw, grilled over ironbark charcoal, rested, seasoned, sliced and served. 

"A one kilogram bistecca is going to cost $140, have 100 grams of bone and deliver 300 grams of steak each to a table of three," he says. "That will cost each diner about $45 and makes us much more affordable than other steak restaurants around." 

Burns has seen a 20 per cent rise in the wholesale price of his beef. "We tried to haggle with our butcher but were told very directly that there would be 'no movement' in price. We have absorbed part of that increase but have had to unfortunately pass some of the cost on to customers." 

While there has been a small drop in the market price of beef cattle in the first week of 2021, some pundits predict the saleyard price could increase by a further 25 per cent to $10 a kilogram for live animals. 

This is a foreboding prospect for Charcoal Grill on the Hill's Fabian Camintini. "We're doing OK at present," he says nervously. "As long as the price of beef doesn't go up any higher."