Turkey fowl: How will a national turkey shortage affect your Thanksgiving?

A summer hit of avian flu killed nearly 50 million turkeys nationwide, posing challenges for customers this Thanksgiving.
(Via Tim Sackton)

A summer hit of avian flu killed nearly 50 million turkeys nationwide, posing challenges for customers this Thanksgiving. Santa Cruz County grocers say they have plenty of turkeys, but customers might need to be flexible on size — and expect higher prices.

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Looking forward to gobbling up turkey on Thanksgiving? This year, customers flocking to local grocery stores might need to be flexible on both price and size.

The reason? A fowl flu.

An avian flu struck the turkey population across America over the summer, just at the time when young turkeys were being raised for the holidays. Bird flu typically spreads during colder months, and the timing this year during the summer meant it was both unexpected and particularly devastating. Nearly 50 million birds have been affected nationally and the flu has been detected in 43 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the avian flu does not pose any risk to humans, it has a 99% mortality rate within five days for poultry, explains Heidi Orrock, whose family raises turkeys at Diestel Family Ranch outside of Sonora, California. They lost more than 150,000 birds in August, a mix of breeds that fulfill different needs for products, including ground meat, deli meat and holiday birds.

As a result, certain sizes of holiday turkeys, especially in the 6- to 10-pound range, might not be as available. Diestel turkeys, in particular, will start at 10 pounds — although other brands available at your local grocery store could carry smaller sizes. “We will have smaller birds but not as small as 6- to 10-pounds, as those are a very specific breed that were impacted with AI [avian influenza],” Orrock said. This year, “flexibility is going to be key” for customers, even if you order early. “You can’t plan for it, and it wasn’t anticipated. What we have left is what we have left.”

Many Santa Cruz County markets, including Shopper’s Corner, New Leaf Community Markets and Staff of Life Natural Foods Market, stock Diestel turkey products and whole birds during the holiday season. Representatives from these markets concur that while Diestel has guaranteed their orders and overall supply should be steady, there might be less availability in some sizes.

Will making a reservation for a turkey help? Not really, says Eric Conover, the meat and seafood manager at Staff of Life, which has locations in Santa Cruz and Watsonville. While Diestel guaranteed his order for Thanksgiving, placed back in March, it did not guarantee sizes or quantities. Based on what he receives, customers might need to size up or down. So if you order a 16-pound turkey, for example, you could receive either a 14- or 18-pound bird.

“We don’t know what we’ll get, either. We just put the order in, cross our fingers and hope. I don’t call them orders anymore — I call them wish lists,” said Conover. He adds that since the pandemic, supply-chain issues have become the norm. In any given week, Staff of Life markets are short anywhere from five to 700 items. He and his team work hard to find substitutions for most products, but there’s nothing they can do about the supply of turkeys.

Will customers see a price increase on their holiday turkey? It’s hard to say. Costs to produce have consistently and rapidly increased, says Orrock, and many of suppliers are passing on their own price increases to producers. While Diestel is working to manage and control costs, Orrock says everything continues to creep upward.

The cost of an 8- to 16-pound turkey is $1.99 per pound nationally, up from $1.15 last year, according to USDA data, a 73% increase. However, the cost of all-natural, pasture-raised turkeys, like Diestel’s, is usually much higher, and most local grocery stores exclusively stock these higher-quality products. While the price for holiday turkeys from Diestel’s and other all-natural brands like Mary’s Free Range Chicken at local grocery stores hasn’t yet been determined, in 2021 it was around $3 per pound.

So are customers out of cluck? Conover says he tries not to lose sight of what’s really important around the holidays. “It’s not about what’s in front of you on your plate,” he said. “It’s about who’s in front of you — your friends, your family and the good things that have come your way and the fact that you’re still there to enjoy them.”