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Cheaper Thanksgiving Turkey This Year, Despite Bird Flu

Tim Sackton, Flickr
National Turkey Federation estimates Americans eat 46 million turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner.

Despite the bird flu epidemic that devastated Midwest turkey farmers this spring, the price of a turkey this Thanksgiving is a little cheaper than last year. This years turkeys are ringing up one cent less per pound than in 2014, according to the USDA’s most recent numbers.

“I was surprised by that,” said John Anderson, deputy chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). “If you would have asked me two months ago, I would have said turkey prices will be up 10 to 12 percent.”

The cheap prices are due in part to last minute sales at grocery stores. The AFBF, which has tracked holiday turkey prices for 30 years, reported a few weeks ago that turkey prices were 6.5 percent above average.

“In the 2000s, there were a few years where we were up 10 to 12 percent,” said Anderson. “So a 6 percent jump isn't, by any stretch, unprecedented.”

Many expected higher prices, even turkey shortages, this year due to the H5N2 avian influenza outbreak. But, Anderson said, the outbreak seems to have hit a select group of farmers, while leaving much of the production line, and consumers, unscathed.

“The avian influenza event was pretty well confined to some of the Midwestern states,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of other parts of the country that weren’t affected. We can make up production in those places. We can put more pounds on every bird.”

The virus, which presents a low risk to human health and few food safety concerns, resulted in the killing of an estimated 8 million turkeys in a few months, or about 3.5 percent of the country’s turkey production capacity. As soon as a farmer detected one bird with the illness, his whole flock had to be euthanized to avoid the spread of the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu.

Despite fears and preparation for thousands of new H5N2 cases this fall, USDA statistics report the last detected case in mid-June. And as Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer reported, affected farmers have been rebuilding their flocks with thousands of new poults.

The National Turkey Federation estimates farmers are on track to turn out 228 million birds this year. About a fifth of those are consumed by Americans each Thanksgiving.