With Thanksgiving just around the corner, families are finalizing their menus and making sure they have everything on their shopping lists. But when shoppers head to the store, they can expect significantly higher prices for their turkey this year.
It’s been a tough year for the industry. An outbreak of bird flu — one of the worst in history — wiped out millions of turkeys and other birds destined for holiday meals across the country, including here in Indiana.
Will there be a turkey shortage? No, consumers will still be able to find them in stores. Still, they will definitely be more expensive and probably a bit smaller than what families cook with.
“There’s no denying that avian flu continues to be a very serious problem nationwide,” said Becky Joniskan, president of the Indiana State Poultry Association. “The turkey industry continues to be particularly hard hit.”
Indiana was ground zero for this year’s outbreak – the first case of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu was detected here in Indiana on February 8th. The deadly virus has since spread to more than 40 states across the country.
Here’s more on what consumers can expect this Thanksgiving holiday.
How many birds have died from bird flu in the US?
According to the US Department of Agriculture, up to 45 million birds nationwide – including turkeys, ducks and backyard flocks – have either died from the virus or been “depopulated” due to exposure and to minimize spread.
Of these, almost 8 million turkeys have been lost as a result of the virus. This corresponds to 3% of the annual turkey production.
While it may not seem like much, experts recognize it can still have a significant impact on an already shrinking national turkey flock.
How many turkeys have died from bird flu in Indiana?
In Indiana, farmers lost nearly 172,000 turkeys as a result of the outbreak, which affected 14 farms in five counties. Indiana is the fourth largest turkey producer in the country after Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas.
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While Indiana has been hit hard and is a major producer, most turkeys in Indiana aren’t sold as whole birds — like the ones families eat at Thanksgiving. Many of these large, feast-worthy birds are native to Minnesota.
Most turkeys in Indiana are more likely to go to ground turkey or turkey breast for deli.
What does this mean for turkey prices?
According to data from CoBank, one of the top banks serving rural America and agribusiness, all cuts of turkey are seeing a price increase compared to this spring and previous years.
For the past decade, retail prices for whole turkeys before Thanksgiving have been just under $1 a pound of meat. That number rose to $1.58 per pound of frozen turkey, according to the USDA’s National Retail Report for October.
That’s 47% more expensive than at the same time last year. It also means that the average price of a 20-pound bird will be $10 higher this Thanksgiving, or about $31.50.
What else contributes to higher prices?
While this year’s bird flu outbreak had a major impact on Thanksgiving turkey prices, it’s not the only reason driving costs up.
The poultry supply chain, like other agricultural sectors, has been impacted by a variety of factors. These include global conflicts such as the war in Ukraine, labor shortages and rising prices for feed, energy, fuel and labour.
Inflation has been felt on grocery store shelves and freezer boxes, and turkey prices are not immune.
What does the bird flu outbreak mean for turkey sizes?
The outbreak has not only led to higher prices, but has also affected production in another way: the size of the turkeys.
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Since the spring, when the outbreaks began to spread, the average weight of turkeys has dropped about a pound from the three-year average.
Year-to-date turkey production is down 5% year-on-year. If the trend continues, CoBank says production will fall by nearly 10% for 2022 — the largest annual reduction in more than a decade.
Is this the first time the turkey industry has had problems?
The turkey industry as a whole has had a tough couple of decades. Farmers faced record high feed costs during the 2012 drought, followed by the first major outbreak of bird flu in 2015.
This was the worst animal health event in US history when 50 million birds died. This year’s outbreak is on track to surpass that catastrophe.
The 2015 outbreak also sent prices soaring, leading to years of stagnant consumer demand and falling per capita consumption of turkey. As a result, the turkey industry slowly began to decline.
Is bird flu on the rise again?
Spring was a difficult time for outbreaks, even here in Indiana. All cases of avian influenza on farms emerged in February and March.
Things got a little better as the summer wore on, and many hoped the danger was over. However, cases have started to rise again in recent months. Both waves have been linked to the migration of wild birds, which can contract but not die from avian influenza. This allows them to transmit the disease to farm birds.
So far, no Indiana farms have been affected by this recent upswing.
“Indiana has been lucky and hasn’t had any cases in commercial turkeys since March of this year,” Joniskan said, “but we remain very vigilant to prevent this.”
All turkey farms affected in Indiana earlier this year have been approved for restocking, she said.
How should I buy this year’s turkey?
While there shouldn’t be a shortage of turkeys, Joniskan still recommends consumers shop early if they’re looking for a specific type or size of turkey to ensure they can get it. She also said there are a few ways Hoosiers could support turkey farmers in Indiana.
“It could be a year before you look at some of these other products if you want to eat Indiana turkey,” Joniskan said.
She said shoppers can buy the individual breasts, ground turkey to make a loaf, or just make a really great turkey sandwich.
“That’s what it’s all about, anyway,” she said.
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.