Despite suffering the worst ever U.S. bird flu outbreak earlier this year, Minnesota's turkey industry — the nation's largest — can still give a modicum of thanks. So can U.S. consumers.
A much feared return of the deadly flu this fall hasn't materialized. Turkey growers have almost restored their flocks. And although bird-flu driven supply cuts have pushed wholesale turkey prices to historic highs, retail bird prices are about the same as they were last year.
"The grocer is definitely eating the difference," said Russ Whitman, a vice president at Urner Barry, a commodity news service known as an authority on poultry pricing.
The H5N2 avian flu touched down in Pope County in western Minnesota in early March, and by mid-June 48 million turkeys and egg-laying chickens were dead nationally, mostly in the Upper Midwest. Minnesota lost 5 million turkeys — about 10 percent of annual production — while turkey farms in Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin also were hard hit, and Iowa's egg industry was devastated.
The H5N2 flu is believed to be spread by wild waterfowl. The virus seemed to follow the wild birds' migration north last spring, and poultry scientists and turkey growers feared its return this fall with the reverse trek south.
"We're certainly thankful that (the bird flu) hasn't shown up," said Steve Olson, head of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. "There is still apprehension," and turkey growers will "feel more comfortable by mid-December."
By then, ducks will be in warmer climes, though some resident birds will remain through the winter.
"The migration is virtually over," said Steve Cordts, a waterfowl specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "By the end of this week, most of Canada will be duckless."
And with the cold that's descended on Minnesota this past week, smaller lakes have started icing over, sending more waterfowl packing.
The Minnesota turkey industry, which supplies almost 20 percent of the nation's birds, has gradually rebuilt. Stricken poultry barns are now largely restocked with new birds. Only five of the 103 turkey farms hit by the flu don't yet have restocking agreements with the state, said Erica Gunderson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
The bird flu erased enough production to light a fire under turkey prices, though. According to Urner Barry, the wholesale price for turkey breast meat, a deli mainstay, is still at or near records, even though prime sandwich season — aka summer — is gone.
Thanksgiving, of course, is the apex of whole-bird season. Last last week, frozen whole turkeys were going for $1.40 per pound wholesale, up 13 percent over a year ago, according to Urner Barry, which is based in New Jersey. The wholesale price of whole, fresh turkeys was going for $1.63 per pound, up 19 percent over a year ago.
But a different story is playing out it in the grocery aisles. Frozen whole turkeys were selling at 95 cents per pound on average — 2 cents less than the same time a year ago, according to a weekly survey published Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fresh hen turkeys were a $1.74 per pound, up 4 cents from last year, according to the survey at advertised prices at major retail outlets.
At Thanksgiving, supermarkets often sell turkeys as loss leaders, which are heavily discounted items that reel in shoppers to buy more profitable goods. This year, they are absorbing even more of the wholesale price increase.
For a while last spring, it wasn't clear there'd even be enough turkeys at Thanksgiving. The flu moved quickly, so fast that at its peak, thousands of dead birds sat in barns for days before disposal crews arrived. Warmer weather finally sapped the virus' strength in mid-June.
Scientists believe ducks and other waterfowl don't get sick themselves from the virus, but spread it through their feces to highly susceptible commercial poultry. Still, it's been tough to find the virus in an actual duck or goose.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has collected about 6,000 bird samples, said Lou Cornicelli, the agency's wildlife research manager. Researchers have analyzed the samples. They've researched live ducks and dead wild turkeys brought in by hunters. Not one has tested positive for highly pathogenic H5N2 bird flu.
"Still, there is a statistical probability that it is deposited on the landscape, we just haven't found it," Cornicelli said.
The virus was likely tracked into barns by workers or farm equipment, or even via airborne dust particles.
Turkey growers have since beefed up their biosecurity, trying to build better barriers between their birds and the world outside their barns.
"Our producers are well aware of what this can do," said Dale Lauer, assistant director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. The agency has added equipment since summer that should allow it to better fight the flu's spread.
Still, worries aren't just flying away with the ducks.
"I am concerned about next spring," Lauer said.