Most of America’s turkeys are raised in large indoor facilities, some of which can hold millions of birds. Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO

Thanksgiving 2022 is shaping up to be a tough one for turkey. The star of the holiday meal will be both hard to find and more expensive than ever.

Turkey supplies have been tight for a long time. Producers began to cut back on raising the birds back in 2019 after turkey prices crashed. Then the pandemic hit, further curtailing production.

Inflation has also pushed up the price of whole turkeys. Farmers and processors are paying a lot more for feed, fuel and labor, which can be scarce. They face supply shortages and drought.

All of it means that home cooks this year could be paying more than twice as much for a turkey as they did last year, some in the poultry industry predict.

And then there’s the avian flu. A particularly persistent and contagious strain carried by migrating birds has killed at least 3.6 percent of the nation’s turkeys, or about 7.3 million birds, so far this year, according to figures from the Department of Agriculture and Watt Global Media, which monitors the poultry business.

Most years, avian flu cases peak with spring migration and then drop off with the summer’s heat. But the current strain, known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, stuck around over the summer, when some holiday flocks were being raised. It has appeared in 42 states and continues to spread as Thanksgiving approaches. More 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 pigs on 275 acres in northeast Indiana. For the past 14 years, he has sold his pasture-raised turkeys fresh. This year, faced with concerns about disease and problems finding workers to process the birds in the fall, he butchered turkeys over the summer and froze them. Instead of his usual 7,000 fresh birds, he produced about 4,000 frozen ones.

“I tell people if they are not going to 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 thin. Restaurants can’t get orders filled. Deli owners are scrambling to find sliced turkey breast. Shoppers are paying as much as 112 percent more for fresh, skinless turkey breasts than they were last year. The fast-food chain Arby’s is warning customers that turkey sandwiches are not available for online ordering, and has posted “temporarily out of stock” on menu boards at some stores, leading to much grumbling on social media.

Most producers, retailers and market analysts don’t think meat cases will be empty. Contracts for most frozen turkeys were signed in the first quarter, some of them before the nation’s first case of avian influenza in a commercial flock was detected at an Indiana turkey farm on Feb. 8. And much of the nation’s supply of frozen birds has been ready to go for months.

But still, shoppers shouldn’t expect the options they’ve enjoyed in the past

“They’ll find a turkey of some kind. It just might not be that nice 10-pounder,” said Russ Whitman, senior vice president at Urner Barry, the price reporting agency that specializes in perishable proteins. “It’s essentially 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 beginning of 2019, it was 90 cents, Mr. Whitman said.

Exactly what that means for shoppers is unclear. This week, the average retail price for a frozen turkey is $1.99 a pound, according to the agriculture department’s weekly turkey report. That is up 73 percent from 2021.

But turkey prices can vary wildly. Grocers are just beginning to announce their holiday promotions, which have often included inexpensive or free turkeys to lure shoppers.

The odds of finding a specific size and type of bird for a reasonable price are worse for people who buy fresh turkeys, which account for about 30 percent of Thanksgiving sales, according to the consumer data firm Numerator. About 80 percent of all fresh whole turkeys are sold in November.

Kate Lacroix, a writer in Boulder, Colo., who runs a pantry-stocking 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’d better order soon.

“This year it’s going to be impossible to find enough turkeys,” he told her. She had no interest in a frozen one. Her freezer is already filled, and thawing a big bird is not something she wants to deal with. “Who has room in the freezer for a turkey?” she said.

So she and her two daughters will head to Phoenix for a family vacation and eat Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant.

Restaurants are readjusting their holiday plans, too. For the first time in eight years, Arnis and Mallory Robbins won’t be selling smoked Thanksgiving turkeys at their restaurant Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque in West Texas. The price for raw birds is just too high.

“Everything is so crazy right now,” Ms. Robbins said.

Mica Talmor, who runs the restaurant Pomella in Oakland, Calif., sent an email to customers last week warning that her supplier couldn’t guarantee her regular order of turkeys. So she may not be able to make turkey the centerpiece of the 400 or so 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’ve been hearing about bird flu for a while. It’s not a mystery,” she said. “I think a lot of people forget to make the connection about where food actually comes from.”

Most of America’s turkeys are raised in large indoor facilities, some of which can hold millions of birds. Avian influenza is transmitted largely by migratory waterfowl that can nest near poultry operations. It spreads quickly, especially through confined flocks.

When the virus is detected, the entire flock — tens of thousands of birds — must be destroyed, either by suffocating the turkeys with firefighting foam, pumping in carbon dioxide or, in rare cases, simply shutting off ventilation, which raises the temperature to fatal levels. The carcasses are usually turned into compost on the property, though some are incinerated.

Some companies, particularly those along migratory routes in the northern United States and Canada, have been hit harder than others. During a September earnings call, a Hormel executive forecast that the bird flu could cut the turkey supply to the company’s Jennie-O brand by as much as 30 percent.

Butterball, which sells more Thanksgiving turkeys than any other company, said it had lost less than 1 percent of its flocks to bird flu this year. That’s in part because most of its facilities are in the South, where migratory birds typically pass through but don’t nest. After the last outbreak of avian flu in 2015, which cost the poultry industry more than $1.5 billion, the company shored up its biosecurity protocols, said Jay Jandrain, the president and chief executive.

He expects to sell more turkeys than last year. But 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 that inflation-weary shoppers are preparing for Thanksgiving with economy in mind, managing costs by limiting the number of side dishes they make, cooking more dishes from scratch and asking guests to bring side dishes.

“They are not looking to compromise on the turkey,” Mr. Jandrain said. “That is quite literally the centerpiece of the meal.”


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