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Where’s the beef? Industry at crossroads

Beef has never been more expensive, and rarely more controversial. From top-end T-bone to Big Mac, the future of the beef industry is at stake.

The most obvious expression of this is its price. Cattle futures in the U.S. scaled all-time highs in 2013, and are predicted to peak at a record $1.405 in early 2014. This is already having an impact on consumers, even though there is usually a delay between prices of cattle rising and retail prices increasing.

Tim Flach | Stone | Getty Images

"People are switching from steak to burgers," Derrell Peel, agricultural economist based at Oklahoma State University, told CNBC.

(Read more: Beef prices at new high)

Health scares around red meat and beef products like "pink slime' – which celebrity chef Jamie Oliver compared to dog food – have also led to a leveling off in demand in countries like the U.S.

(Read more: 'Pink slime' perfectly safe)

"Demand for meat and meat product is changing, for economic and health-related reasons," David Simon, author of Meatonomics, told CNBC.

However, the appetite for beef is multiplying rapidly in markets like China – and the competition to secure these markets is increasing.

International trade barriers should be eased after the new Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement between Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, which account for a half of global exports between them, comes into effect. European beef will come fully back onto the global table after years of restrictions imposed post-BSE crisis. The disease in cattle – commonly known as mad cow disease – wreaked havoc in the market for meat in the 1990s. Negotiations to allow the U.S. to export beef to China, one of the world's fastest-growing markets, are also continuing.

At the same time, cattle supply is at an all-time low in the U.S. after nearly three years of drought, which led to more farmers killing off their herds earlier than planned. U.S. beef output will hit a 20-year low of 24.205 billion pounds this year, according to Department of Agriculture forecasts. It will be 2017 before production is restored, Peel predicts.

High prices are causing concerns in the industry that demand will be affected – and that lower consumption will mean farmers switch to other products.

"The main challenge for the industry is: Where does the beef come from?" Albert Vernooij, a meat industry analyst, told CNBC.

Sometimes, of course, it's not beef at all. Last year's horsemeat scandal in the U.K., where some producers were discovered to have substituted beef for horse in cheaper beef products, illustrated the negative effects consumer demand for cheap beef can have.

"The challenge is always that the food service chains want to offer burgers at the same price," Vernooij said. Chains like McDonald's and Burger King want to keep their flagship burgers at a similar price – but beef is one of their biggest commodity costs.

(Read more: McDonald's website bashes fast food)

Beef has a much longer life cycle than other meats like poultry or pork. Cattle are typically slaughtered for their meat at between 2.5-3 years old – although that has come down to around 2.3 years in 2013 as producers tried to compensate for the effects of drought, according to Rabobank.

"We have been in a drought situation for much of the last three years which has caused a 60-year low in cattle numbers. We are now looking at a period of reduced production as part of that process is allowing cows to mature, and allowing people to rebuild their herds," Peel said.

This longer life cycle, and a low level of multiple births, mean that producers find it more difficult to adjust quickly to price movements.

On the other hand, it also means that the developed markets face less immediate danger from emerging markets producers than poultry or pork, which are much quicker and easier to set up and ramp up production in countries like China or Russia.

(Read more: Lean times at the grill)

The cycle between peak and trough of the beef industry, which is usually about a decade long, has been changed by "abnormal conditions" over the past 15 years, according to Peel.

"The beef industry was really ready to expand in 2011, but drought has prevented their plans," he said.

There are two main ways of rearing cows for beef production: grass feeding and feedlots, which brings them to market weight more quickly, but is also more vulnerable to changes in the cost of commodities like corn and other grains.

(Read more: Pork and beef get rebranded)

The use of feedlots has also come under attack by animal rights campaigners.

"It's simply cheaper to raise cattle on a feedlot than pasture," Simon said.

Farm subsidies are increasingly controversial in the U.S. as the Obama administration tries to reform them. They were brought in under President Roosevelt to help agriculture recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which resulted from over-farming in the years before the Depression.

"These were initially designed to help small farmers and other people in rural America, but they are increasingly providing help to large farmers," Simon argued.

(Read more: The billionaires receiving farm subsidies)

Last year, government payouts made up $11.4 billion of farmers' income, in a year when net income hit its highest ever figure of $131 billion.

Beef farmers haven't received direct subsidies since 2010, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association pointed out.

Simon argues that they are subsidized indirectly by the subsidies paid to corn and soy farmers, which make for cheaper feed.

"When producers can get someone else to take the cost of production, they will," he said.

Fierce disagreements over subsidies for dairy farmers have held up the $500 billion Farm Bill currently being debated in Congress, which will set agricultural policies for the next five years. One of its key tenets is a cap of $250,000 on farm payments to a farm, which will cut subsidies to larger farmers but, it is hoped, continue to back smaller farmers.

(Read more: Why milk prices may skyrocket if farm bill doesn't go through)

U.S. farmers only have to look south to see how government interference can affect the beef industry. Argentina is famed for its gauchos and beef – but its share of the international market has shrunk after Cristina Kirchner's populist government issued a levy on beef exports to keep beef prices relatively low in Argentina itself. Beef is a staple dish in the country, and Argentines eat more beef each year than anywhere around the world except Uruguay, so the move should have appealed to voters.

The artificially lowered prices mean that many beef farmers have switched to planted crops like soy beans instead, and Argentina has dropped out of the world's top ten beef exporters, at a point when other countries are trying to seize the export market.

These export markets are likely to continue to be fueled by demand for lower-grade, feedlot-produced beef.

"Countries where people are moving towards Western-style diets and fast-food consumption are where the real growth is coming from, but the real volumes there are for burgers," Vernooij said.

By CNBC's Catherine Boyle. Twitter: @cboylecnbc.


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