To make sure all 15 Busch’s Fresh Food Market stores had enough turkeys over 22 pounds to sell for Thanksgiving, meat buyer John Taormina started ordering in January.
He didn’t end up with a single one of the birds, which last year accounted for more than a third of what the Michigan company sold for the holiday.
The worst-ever U.S. outbreak of bird flu destroyed almost 8 million turkeys earlier this year, and those that remain are smaller than normal. That’s boosting wholesale costs for grocers to a record, and consumer prices are the highest ever for this time of year. Americans will eat about 49 million turkeys for Thanksgiving holiday meals on Nov. 26, or roughly one of every five that will be consumed all year.
“The larger-sized birds will be difficult to get this year,” Taormina said, adding that the biggest available at his stores will be 20 to 22 pounds, big enough to feed about 15 people. “Turkey is center-of-the-plate for this holiday, so typically families get together and they’re looking for the bigger-sized” birds, he said.
Some turkey farmers haven’t recovered from a six-month outbreak that ended in June, and many were forced to sell birds earlier than normal and at smaller sizes, said Russ Whitman, vice president at commodity researcher Urner Barry in Bayville, N.J. Production fell to a five-year low, and the September weight decline for turkeys was the biggest for that month in four decades, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.
Wholesale, fresh turkey hens surged 18 percent from a year earlier to a record $1.5993 a pound as of Nov. 6, and frozen turkeys were up 5.6 percent at $1.309 a pound, after touching an all-time high of $1.385 a week earlier, USDA data show. The agency estimates birds at slaughter weighed 29.7 pounds in September, down 2.8 percent from a year earlier and the biggest decline for that month since 1973.
While shoppers probably can still find deals because most supermarkets offer seasonal discounts on turkey to lure customers, the USDA reported prices for frozen hens averaged a record $1.08 a pound as of Nov. 12, up 21 percent from a year earlier.
Fresh turkeys that account for 20 percent of Thanksgiving sales are especially hard to find because most were born after outbreak ended, according to Tom Elam, president of consulting firm FarmEcon in Indiana. The number of baby turkeys placed into flocks in July were down 7 percent from a year earlier, USDA data show.
With tighter supplies, buyers are competing for supply. The Cornwell family in Marshall, Mich., which raises as many as 40,000 birds a year, is getting calls for the first time from large food distributors that usually buy only from major producers, farm owner Patti Cornwell said.