Bird Flu Cuts Sales for Turkey Farmers

(The Dallas Morning News/TNS) -

Jim Richardson, co-owner of Richardson Farms near Austin, Texas, has been sold out of turkeys for a month.

“I’m getting calls from people I’ve never heard of wanting wholesale orders — 200 turkeys here, 200 there — and I just don’t have ’em,” said Richardson, who quickly sold out of his 300 birds. “We have one-third the birds we did last year, and that’s all we could get. The supply just dried up.”

Turkey farmers and consumers are feeling the effects of an especially virulent strain of bird flu.

The highly pathogenic avian influenza H5 wiped out nearly 8 million turkeys, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast. It was the largest avian influenza outbreak ever in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The avian flu, which is carried by wild birds and spreads easily through commercial flocks, began spreading in December 2014 and continued into mid-June 2015, striking domestic or captive birds in 15 states.

The 7.5 million birds felled by the flu are a small portion of the 46 million turkeys typically eaten by in the U.S. at Thanksgiving. Even with the bird flu, growers are on track this year to produce 228 million turkeys, according to Keith Williams, a spokesman for the National Turkey Federation.

Frozen turkeys account for about 85 percent of the U.S. market for Thanksgiving, Williams said. Much of the frozen supply was processed before the brunt of the flu hit, he said.

Retailers often use lower-priced turkeys to lure consumers into the store in the hope that they’ll stay and buy other foods for the holiday. But bargains won’t be a given across the board this year, said Phil Lempert, who tracks the grocery industry and operates Supermarketguru.com.

“Supermarkets are not giving the promotions on turkeys that they have in the past,” he said.

As of late October, the price per pound for frozen hen and tom turkeys (toms are larger) was up about 19 percent from a year ago — to $1.02 per pound, according to the USDA. That snapshot was taken before many of the pre-Thanksgiving sales began in, Williams said.

At Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest grocer, “our merchants moved quickly to lock in supply when avian influenza became a potential threat to customers being able to find turkeys for Thanksgiving,” said spokesman John Forrest Ales.

“We have bought millions more turkeys this year versus last year,” Ales said. “We will have more turkeys than we’ve ever had. We moved very, very quickly to lock up supply.”