Is the pandemic making turkey more expensive?

After outbreaks among agriculture workers, industry experts weigh in on the pandemic's effects on turkey prices

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 17, 2020 7:30PM (EST)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Like everything else that has been ruined by 2020, it looks like Thanksgiving is going to take a hit — or, at the very least, become much more expensive.

Wholesale turkey prices are going up, as the actual number of turkeys available to be consumed goes down, according to Texas A & M Today. According to AgriLife Extension economist David Anderson, turkey production has fallen by 7.7% in October 2020 compared to where it was at the same time last year. Overall turkey production for 2020 has fallen by 2.7% compared to where it was in 2019. The culprit, he says, is the fact that there are fewer turkeys being produced.

"The turkey industry has struggled with profitability and some of the trends when it comes to consumer choices around the holidays and the consumer trends when it comes to deli meat," Anderson explained. "You have producers trying to gauge demand and what the market will be, and that's been difficult the last few years."

John Zimmerman, owner of P and J Products in Northfield, Minnesota, reinforced that impression in an interview with Vox last week, commenting on how the pandemic has taken a toll on turkey farmers.

"It started quickly in March and April, because at our processing plant we started to have employees test positive for Covid," Zimmerman told Vox. "A lot of those employees live in large family groups, so one employee would be positive, and you'd have to quarantine 15 or 20 people. We saw a definite decrease in the workforce at the plant, and that affected the farm because we're working at half speed so we can't get the birds out on time."

This lowered production is naturally causing an increase in prices. What's more, Americans are being advised to hold smaller Thanksgiving gatherings as a precaution against COVID-19, which makes smaller turkeys more desirable and more likely to be purchased early than larger ones. This means that people who wait until the last minute to go turkey shopping may find themselves stuck with bigger birds. As Phil Lempert, food industry analyst and editor of SupermarketGuru, told CNBC, "it takes about five months for a turkey to grow to be 20, 22 pounds, which is the typical turkey size."

On the one hand, turkey producers are likely to do well this Thanksgiving season because of the higher prices. 

"The producers are going to come out well because they're selling at prices higher than last year's prices," Dr. Thomas Elam, president of FarmEcon LLC, told Watt Poultry USA, an industry trade publication. "And it's traditional for retailers to lose money on whole turkeys this time of year and they may take a little deeper losses if demand's gone weak."

Not all turkey farmers feel the same way, though. As one turkey farmer in Pennsylvania told a local news affiliate, he is concerned that not as many people will be interested in purchasing his 16 to 22 pound birds by Thanksgiving and that he could be stuck with a surplus if they are not sold by Christmas.

"If you get stuck with 500 turkeys after Thanksgiving and they don't buy them at Christmas, your bank (is) going to be tapping you on the shoulder saying, 'what's going on?'" the turkey farmer, David Jones, explained.

A spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation offered a different view to Salon.

"The overwhelming majority of turkey farms are family owned, and we have had no reports of outbreaks," the spokesperson wrote. "NTF member companies have been incredibly responsive to the challenges of COVID-19." The spokesperson emphasized that there had been "illnesses in some turkey plants, but the industry largely has been able to contain them quickly, implement additional safety procedures and minimize plant downtime." "We do not anticipate any supply challenges for Thanksgiving," they concluded.

The spokesperson did note that wholesale turkey prices were higher than in 2019.

Turkeys are not the only food product that has become more expensive due to the pandemic. Food prices have been rising throughout the world during the pandemic due to factors ranging from supply chain disruptions to hoarding tendencies among people fearful of food scarcity.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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