Turkey's turnaround

by Lawrence Aylward
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“Brace yourself for a Thanksgiving turkey shortage.”

“Talking turkey: Bird flu may bite supplies this Thanksgiving.”

Those are just two of the headlines warning consumers that they might not be able to secure turkeys for their Thanksgiving dinners this year because of the avian influenza outbreak last spring on many Midwest turkey farms, which led to more than 7 million birds being destroyed.

But Joel Brandenberger, executive director of the National Turkey Federation (NTF), said the “Thanksgiving turkey shortage” was the biggest non-news story of the season.

“[The turkey supply] was never in doubt,” he added.

Brandenberger understands why the general media reported a potential shortage. “Those losses were devastating to the companies and growers involved,” he said, adding that turkey processors were equipped to meet the holiday demand.

“At the end of the day, [the turkeys lost to AI] represented about 3 percent of the anticipated production for the year,” Brandenberger said. “Now, did that mean that [consumers didn’t] have quite the range of fresh or frozen to choose from? Yes. Did it mean there was a pressure on price points for fresh turkeys? Yes. But turkeys were plentiful. You could look at almost any supermarket in any region of the country and find there were still the usual Thanksgiving lost-leader discounts, especially on frozen birds.”

Brandenberger said the turkey industry has the ability to respond even when its infrastructure takes a hit like it did this year.

“It’s a resilient industry. It’s an industry that can adapt and adapt quickly,” he added.

Brandenberger said that anytime there is a crisis such as the AI outbreak, there is a level of uncertainty that overcomes the industry.

“But through all the anguish, everybody stayed focused,” he noted. “The farms are back up and producing. The infrastructure in the breeder industry is beginning to recover.”

Turkey producers and processors not hit by AI stepped up collectively to make sure the turkey industry was viewed as a reliable supplier, Brandenberger said.

“During certain aspects of the year, it was as terrible as anything I could remember in my time here,” said Brandenberger, who has been with NTF for about 25 years. “But the way the industry fought through it and got [the industry] back to where it is now…it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in the last 25 years.”

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