Thanksgiving 2022 promises to be difficult for the turkey. The star of the holiday meal will be both hard to find and more expensive than ever.
The turkey supply has been tight for a long time. Producers began cutting back on bird farming in 2019 after turkey prices plummeted. Then the pandemic hit, further reducing production.
Inflation has also pushed up the price of whole turkeys. Farmers and processors pay much more for feed, fuel and labour, which can be scarce. They face supply shortages and drought.
All of this means home cooks this year could pay more than double for a turkey than last year, some in the poultry industry are predicting.
And then there is the bird flu. A particularly persistent and contagious strain carried by migratory birds has killed at least 3.6% of the country’s turkeys, or about 7.3 million birds, so far this year, according to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Watt Global Media, which monitors the poultry industry. .
In most years, bird flu cases peak with spring migration and then wane with the heat of summer. But the current strain, known as highly pathogenic bird flu, remained through the summer when some holiday flocks were raised. It has appeared in 42 states and continues to spread as Thanksgiving approaches. Other outbreaks were confirmed this week, this time in turkey flocks in Utah and Pennsylvania.
“I’ve never seen anything as crazy as the turkey market right now,” said Greg Gunthorp, who raises ducks, turkeys and hogs on 275 acres in northeast Indiana. . For 14 years, he has been selling his pastured turkeys fresh. This year, faced with disease concerns and the difficulty of finding workers to process the birds in the fall, he slaughtered turkeys over the summer and froze them. Instead of his usual 7,000 fresh birds, he produced about 4,000 frozen birds.
“I tell people if they don’t buy one of our turkeys, if they see one in the store, they better pick it up and put it in the freezer,” he said.
Every corner of the turkey market is stretched. Restaurants cannot fill orders. Deli owners are scrambling for slices of turkey breast. Buyers are paying up to 112% more for fresh, skinless turkey breast than last year. Fast-food chain Arby’s warns customers that turkey sandwiches are not available to order online and posted ‘temporarily out of stock’ on menu boards in some stores, prompting widespread grumbling on social networks.
Most producers, retailers and market analysts don’t expect the crates of meat to be empty. Contracts for most frozen turkeys were signed in the first quarter, some of them before the nation’s first case of bird flu in a commercial flock was detected at an Indiana turkey farm on Feb. 8. And much of the national supply of frozen birds has been ready to go for months.
Nevertheless, buyers should not expect the options they have enjoyed in the past
“They’ll find any turkey. That might not be so pretty 10 pounds,” said Russ Whitman, senior vice president at Urner Barry, the perishable protein pricing agency. “It’s basically a ‘you’re going to take what you get and feel good about it’ situation.”
He and others predict that prices will continue to rise in the coming weeks. On Wednesday, the wholesale price for a hen, the bird most people eat for Thanksgiving, was $1.85 a pound, about 40 cents higher than a year ago. At the start of 2019, it was 90 cents, Whitman said.
What exactly this means for buyers is unclear. This week, the average retail price for a frozen turkey is $1.99 a pound, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Weekly Turkey Report. That’s a 73% increase from 2021.
But turkey prices can vary wildly. Grocers are just beginning to advertise their holiday promotions, which have often included cheap or free turkeys to entice shoppers.
According to consumer data firm Numerator, the odds of finding a specific size and type of bird at a reasonable price are worse for people who buy fresh turkeys, which account for about 30% of Thanksgiving sales. About 80% of all fresh whole turkeys are sold in November.
Kate Lacroix, a writer in Boulder, Colorado who runs a pantry storage business and teaches people how to use the freezer to save money, likes to buy fresh turkey a few days before Thanksgiving. Her neighborhood butcher warned her that she had better order quickly.
“This year it will be impossible to find enough turkeys,” he told her. She had no interest in a jelly. Her freezer is already full and defrosting a large bird is not something she wants. “Who has room in the freezer for a turkey?” she says.
She and her two daughters will therefore travel to Phoenix for a family vacation and dine at a restaurant for Thanksgiving.
Restaurants are also readjusting their vacation plans. For the first time in eight years, Arnis and Mallory Robbins will not be selling Thanksgiving smoked turkeys at their Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque restaurant in West Texas. The price of raw birds is simply too high.
“Everything is so crazy right now,” Robbins said.
Mica Talmor, who runs the Pomella restaurant in Oakland, Calif., sent an email to customers last week warning them that his supplier could not guarantee his regular order of turkeys. So she may not be able to make the turkey the centerpiece of the roughly 400 pre-ordered Thanksgiving meals she usually prepares.
The supplier eventually promised to fill her order (“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said), but the birds will be small with less meat.
Customers shouldn’t be surprised by all the turkey drama, she said. “We have been hearing about bird flu for some time. It’s no mystery,” she said. “I think a lot of people forget to make the connection to where the food actually comes from.”
Most American turkeys are raised in large indoor facilities, some of which can hold millions of birds. Avian influenza is largely transmitted by migratory waterfowl that may nest near poultry farms. It spreads rapidly, especially through confined herds.
When the virus is detected, the entire flock – tens of thousands of birds – must be destroyed, either by smothering the turkeys with fire-fighting foam, injecting carbon dioxide or, in rare cases, by simply turning off the ventilation, which raises the temperature to death. levels. Carcasses are generally composted on the property, although some are incinerated.
Some businesses, especially those along the migration routes from the northern United States and Canada, have been hit harder than others. During an earnings conference call in September, a Hormel executive predicted that avian flu could cut the company’s Jennie-O brand turkey supply by up to 30%.
Butterball, which sells more Thanksgiving turkeys than any other company, said it has lost less than 1% of its flocks to bird flu this year. This is partly because most of its facilities are in the south, where migratory birds generally pass through but do not nest. After the last avian flu outbreak in 2015, which cost the poultry industry more than $1.5 billion, the company strengthened its biosecurity protocols, said Jay Jandrain, president and CEO.
He expects to sell more turkeys than last year. But the selection may be limited. He suggests people shop early if they want a specific size or style.
Butterball commissioned a survey in July that showed inflation-weary shoppers prepare for Thanksgiving with the economy in mind, managing costs by limiting the number of side dishes they prepare, cooking more dishes from scratch and asking guests to bring side dishes.
“They’re not looking to compromise on the turkey,” Jandrain said. “It’s literally the centerpiece of the meal.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.