Supermarkets have been forced to tag cuts of meat because shoplifters have turned to stealing food during the credit crunch. Retailers warn that the recession has changed the pattern of crime in high street stores, with thieves switching from luxury items to basic foodstuffs.
Shops have been forced to step up security around food counters after sharp increases in the quantity of beef, chicken, bacon and cheese going missing.
Tesco, Iceland and Marks & Spencer have all reported rises in theft in their stores this year. The problem has become so acute in some areas that retailers, including Somerfield, have experimented with fitting electronic tags to expensive cuts of meat.
Over the past decade, most shoplifters have pilfered small high-value items – such as perfumes, packets of razor blades and DVDs – to fund drug habits.
Richard Dodd, spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, said: "In difficult times likes these, there is evidence that the range of people stealing expands. They are stealing a bigger range of items and going for things they want to use rather than sell.
"Retailers believe there has been an increase in theft as a result of the downturn and are tightening their security. More security staff are being taken on and the tagging of items is becoming more widespread."
Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College in London, said: "If members of the public are risking prosecution to steal basic staples, that adds to the evidence that families are experiencing real hardship. It's not just shops feeling the pinch. Their customers are too."
Police are also reporting an increase in thefts of metal, and petrol being siphoned from cars and stolen from filling stations. Mick Giannasi, the chief constable of Gwent, said: "We're starting to pick up crime trends associated with the economic situation. We ask ourselves where can we best put our resources. Metal thefts started to increase, so we put a response in and that had an impact in bringing it down. We're now looking at petrol thefts using our roads policing unit."