Restaurants and others in the foodservice business face “dramatically” higher beef costs in 2012 amid shrinking cattle inventories and the prospect for strong exports, according to a report by BB&T Capital Markets analyst Heather Jones.

There are concerns over how demand will be affected by the price increases “coming down the pike,” Jones wrote, citing a recent conference call her firm hosted featuring Steve Kay, editor of industry publication Cattle Buyers Weekly.

“We would expect hamburger demand to be impacted by such increases,” Jones said in the report. “But if consumers continue to stay focused on the lowest absolute price point item, (ground beef) could prove a stalwart, while demand for higher-priced cuts would continue to ebb.”

Prices for steaks and other cuts have already surged this year and government forecasters expect beef will become even more expensive in 2012. According to the Agriculture Department, average nationwide supermarket beef prices are on track to jump 8 percent to 9 percent this year from last year, the biggest increase among the categories tracked by the government.

Beef price increases will vary by cut as the per-pound cost is “what consumers generally watch,” Jones said. Many retailers probably will boost ground beef prices more on a percentage basis than, for example, a New York strip, as the cents-per-pound increase “would be much smaller,” she said.

During October, choice-grade, boneless sirloin steak averaged $6.32 a pound nationwide at retail, up 32 cents, or 5.3 percent, from the same month a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Lean and extra-lean ground beef averaged $3.82 a pound, up 19 cents, or 5.2 percent, from a year earlier.

Meatpacker losses have ballooned in recent months as prices they paid for slaughter-ready cattle rose to all-time highs. Given an outlook for lower production next year, wholesale beef prices must rise 10 percent to 15 percent for packers to reach “normalized” margins, Kay said, according to the BB&T report.

U.S. beef processors are heading for their first unprofitable year since 2007, according to Stephens Inc. analyst Farha Asham.

Processors lost an average of nearly $101 per animal slaughtered during the first few weeks of November, Asham estimated in a recent report. So far this year, meatpacker margins averaged a loss of about $4.49 per head, compared with a profit of $24.37 in 2010, Asham said.

Kay believes processors “have become somewhat undisciplined temporarily” regarding margins, according to Jones, be he anticipates a recovery “relatively soon.” There hasn’t been a breakdown in “industry rationality,” Kay said, meaning margins in 2012 will be strong, “albeit not at 2010 levels.”

Beef margins for Tyson Foods Inc., for example, are positive so far in the current quarter, though down substantially from the previous quarter, Jones said.

Rising beef prices have fueled concern that many consumers, grappling with high unemployment, will shift to cheaper meats, such as chicken. With more than 80 percent of U.S. beef production consumed domestically, demand here is “of utmost importance,” according to Kay.

Still, Kay said the export outlook “is still good,” according to BB&T. “Global demand trends, particularly in Asia, are bullish for beef and that is expected to continue. Further, there is a strong preference globally for the grain-fed beef that is the U.S. specialty.”

U.S. beef exports will reach an estimated 2.78 billion pounds in 2011, up 20 percent from 2010, and shipments are projected to rise another 0.4 percent in 2012, the USDA said in a report earlier this month. Domestic beef production in 2012 is forecast to decline 4.9 percent, to 25.1 billion pounds, a seven-year low.