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Will We Still Have A Thanksgiving Turkey This Year?

Food Production

Will We Still Have A Thanksgiving Turkey This Year?

The Dirt

Last spring, we watched as the masses stocked up during a seemingly apocalyptic time. Grocery store shelves cleared out and essentials, like eggs, disinfecting wipes, and toilet paper were impossible to find. As Covid cases climb once more, we wonder what that means for our Thanksgiving dinner: will there be enough turkeys to go around?


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Thanksgiving is a day filled with gratitude and togetherness, with dinner as its crowning symbol of deep appreciation and thankfulness – for our family, our friends, our health, or all of the above mixed into the perfect holiday bite. Whether baked, grilled, smoked, or even deep-fried, you will find a big, delicious turkey on almost every table in the U.S.

So, with the upcoming holiday as important as ever while COVID-19 looms overhead, will we be able to get our hands on our table’s delicious centerpiece this year? We decided to find out.

The U.S. Turkey

Every year, a whopping 88% of Americans have turkey on Thanksgiving, accounting for 46 million turkeys consumed on this one day. All these birds are produced domestically which, when you think about it, seems completely appropriate.

In 2018, the U.S. produced 245 million turkeys, the equivalent to almost 8 billion pounds. That is about 15 miles of rail cars! Almost 20% of these turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving.

In 2016, two-thirds of all turkeys produced in the U.S. were from just six states. Minnesota leads the way with the production of about 44 million turkeys, followed by North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia.

When I think of Thanksgiving turkeys, the first brand I think of is Butterball. That’s probably because Butterball leads the country in turkey production, producing about 1.3 billion pounds of turkey in 2019. Jennie-O Turkey Store, Honeysuckle White, and Stony Brook Farms round out the top four producers. Will these producers still be able to get us our turkeys this year?

We talked to a leading expert in the field, Thomas Windish from Cargill Protein, and here is what we know…

How has Covid changed turkey production?

Turkey production is down a few percentage points from last year. A small part of this is attributed to Covid’s effect on the entire supply chain, not the number of turkeys grown.

But this downward trend wasn’t unprecedented — total turkey production has dropped 15% since 1999. Whole-turkey consumption was already in decline because cooking a whole bird is a daunting task, especially for the younger generation of food buyers. These consumers want modified turkey products, such as boneless or ground turkey breasts, which is why these easier-to-cook, value-added turkeys have experienced such growth.

Similar to the other meat processing facilities, Covid changed the speed at which turkeys could be processed. This caused a backlog of supply, especially in spring and early summer. This also affected the weight of the turkeys – it’s a complex supply chain where companies can anticipate the weights of their turkeys.

But when production lines were disturbed or couldn’t run at all due to Covid, turkeys were fed more and they kept growing, giving companies larger birds than what they anticipated. However, it wasn’t enough to cause a change in the sizes of birds we’ll see this year.

This is something all companies had to work through, especially with decisions about turkey production being decided last September for this Thanksgiving. It’s all about adjusting to what’s happening in the world around us—flexibility is key.

Bigger turkeys are great, but will there be enough?

Every January, most retailers negotiate with turkey companies on how many frozen turkeys they will be ordering for that upcoming Thanksgiving and at what price. In late summer, retailers do the same for fresh turkeys. In fact, the set price and pound of turkeys being produced for Thanksgiving 2020 were set before Covid had much of an impact on the U.S.—good news for us!

Whether we run out of turkey or not will all depend on the retailer and their pricing strategies. In past years, grocery stores would have Thanksgiving marketing deals, decreasing the prices of turkeys per pound or even giving them away depending on how much money the customer would spend at the grocery store in preparation for the holiday. This strategy was great in year’s past; however, low prices on essential, or iconic, items during a pandemic where panic buying is the norm may cause areas of demand outstripping supply, leading to empty shelves in our supermarkets.

Experts don’t think retailers will be as aggressive to give away free or low-priced turkeys this year. However, a mid-November spike in Covid cases could change all that.

Right now, frozen turkeys are beginning to hit the shelves at grocery stores and you’re going to see a lot of them—but don’t run out and buy them all up! Shop as you normally would to avoid shortages and ensure everyone has a chance to have Tom Turkey grace their tables.

What can we expect when buying our turkey this year?

Many believe there will be a higher demand for smaller birds because of the pandemic, as Americans won’t have as big of a Thanksgiving this year due to social distancing and difficulty traveling. However, some experts believe that because our country has been faced with a total lack-of-normal life, they will go all-out for Thanksgiving this year, including buying the same-sized turkey they typically would and just having lots of leftovers.

“Our consumer research suggests that consumers are keen to make the holidays special this year in the face of Covid and with the impact it’s had on families. It also suggests that traditions and foods are the comforts and areas where consumers will not be making trade-offs or cuts to the budget.”

– Thomas Windish, Retail Channel President, Cargill Protein

Grocers may request smaller birds in their freezers, but not many turkey companies can accommodate these requests this late in the game. So, if you want a small bird, shop early! Sidenote: we’re big fans of leftovers here at D2D, so we will all continue to find us the biggest bird we can!

What’s the deal with fresh vs. frozen birds?

The window for producing fresh turkeys remains unchanged. They are headed to the grocery store about three weeks in advance of Thanksgiving. This is because fresh turkeys can only last so long until they have to be cooked.

Even though one out of six turkeys produced is sold as fresh and not frozen, consumer preference for fresh has increased over the last few years, mostly due to the popular saying, “fresh is best”. But does this hold true for meat? Surprisingly, for meat, this is simply not the case. There are a lot of benefits to frozen meat, in general. Fresh just sounds better to a consumer.

When you freeze beef or poultry, an intercellular breakdown occurs, making the meat more tender. And when you freeze fruits and vegetables, nutrients are better retained, making the levels higher than their fresh counterparts. Although no study has been done on frozen turkeys, we can assume the same may be true. However, we do know that moisture is retained far better in frozen turkeys than in fresh ones, leading to a more tender turkey dinner. Yum!

Companies take extra special care of frozen turkeys, too. They freeze them right away after the bird is harvested, cleaned, and packaged, and then store them in a temperature-controlled environment. This allows the consumer to control the thawing process at home.

With a fresh bird, the clock is ticking: by the time the retailer sells the turkey, it is crunch time. Companies have a lot more confidence in the safety of frozen birds because if fresh turkeys aren’t properly stored, handled, or cooked, they’re more prone to pathogen growth, causing a lovely family dinner to turn bad very quickly.

With that in mind, don’t forget to check out our guide on how to cook and handle your bird this Thanksgiving!

Turkey-shopping Take-aways

  • Do NOT panic buy!!! There are more than enough turkeys to go around. Stocking up on turkeys will just ruin Thanksgiving for other families.
  • If a moist turkey is top priority, buy a frozen bird
  • If you are looking for a specific size turkey, consider buying sooner. If you’re ok with any size, then proceed as you normally would.
  • And be sure to read about safe prepping and cooking practices so everyone can enjoy a delicious and healthy turkey this year!

The Bottom Line

There is no reason to be concerned about having a Thanksgiving turkey this year. Companies did everything they could to make sure we still have the same dinner as we usually do – all the more reason to thank our farmers! Happy Thanksgiving!

D2D-illustration Bottom Line