In 2019, the National Turkey Federation (NTF) took its Turkey Smoke campaign nationwide. The federation set out to educate more consumers – specifically those who participate in barbecue competitions – about cooking, or technically smoking, turkey alongside the other popular proteins. As a result, a turkey category was featured in 29 barbecue competitions around the country, including Memphis in May, the American Royal in Kansas City and the Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.

“Through Turkey Smoke events, NTF is showcasing how turkey naturally fits into barbecue competitions, no matter how you slice it,” said Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing for NTF. “Our goal with building Turkey Smoke and taking it nationwide is to increase demand for NTF members’ products by inspiring pitmasters and backyard grillers to try turkey.”

Of course, when stores and restaurants shuttered this spring as the coronavirus pandemic spread about the country, events, too, were canceled. And that included many of the popular competitive barbecue events.

“Many in-person events have had to cancel this year, and we wanted to find a way to engage with competition barbecue teams while they were stuck at home,” Breeding said. “We’ve held two virtual Turkey Smoke competitions thus far.”

The first event was in May with The BBQ League and the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), and the second was part of DC’s Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle that transitioned to virtual. There were around 80 competitors total, each submitting photos and videos showcasing their entries.

The winner of Turkey Smoke in The BBQ League/KCBS event was Simone Fernandes. Wolf’s Revenge BBQ won the Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle’s Turkey Smoke category.

MEAT+POULTRY spoke with Breeding to learn more about NTF’s involvement with the barbecue segment, as well as to find out how the protein segment is handling changes in consumption and distribution that have resulted from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing for NTF

MEAT+POULTRY: What are some of the NTF’s latest efforts to promote turkey within the industry and on the plates of consumers?

Beth Breeding: Barbecue outreach has been a major focus for the National Turkey Federation. Turkey’s versatility makes it an ideal addition to the smoker or the grill – plus it is often a quicker cook. With more consumers cooking at home than ever, we see an opportunity to further introduce them to turkey outside of just the holiday season or the lunchbox. NTF’s Turkey Smoke campaign is taking turkey to competitions and backyards alike, and Ray Lampe, a member of the Barbecue Hall of Fame, is our “spokeschef” and partner in creating new recipes and content.

M+P: How does the NTF educate and pique consumers’ appetite for new and different ways to enjoy turkey?

Breeding: We want to highlight just how many different ways turkey can fit into a meal. We all know it’s the star of Thanksgiving, but turkey can take center stage at a weeknight dinner as well. NTF shares recipes and meal inspiration with consumers through our @ServeTurkey social media channels and website recipe archive. We also work with bloggers and influencers who help promote turkey content.

M+P: How are turkey production, processing and consumer consumption faring presently?

Breeding: There have been significant challenges in 2020 across all segments of the industry. Production has declined this year as the industry adjusts to ongoing shifts in market demands. In most cases, turkey processing now is running close to normal capacity. Turkey consumption has remained solid throughout the current situation. Looking at growth year-over-year, we’ve seen consistent gains at retail, with ground turkey performing especially well. However, stronger retail sales have not fully counteracted the sharp decline in foodservice business for the industry.

M+P: We have heard a lot about challenges in the beef and pork segments during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not very much about turkey processing. How has the industry avoided the challenges pork and beef processors have faced the past six months?

Breeding: Our member companies have been incredibly responsive to the challenges of COVID-19, and I think that played a significant role in their ability to develop innovative plans for safely continuing operations throughout the pandemic. Obviously, there were illnesses in some turkey plants, but the industry was able to contain them quickly, implement additional safety procedures and minimize plant downtime.

M+P: How has COVID-19 directly affected the turkey industry? Have any segments of the industry been affected more than others?

Breeding: Anyone in the meat and poultry business has been on a very long roller coaster ride so far this year. Strong retail sales and demand have been a bright spot, but those sales are not enough to make up for significant foodservice losses for some turkey processors. Additionally, while the reopening of the China market has been a positive development, turkey exports, as a whole, are decidedly down this year. Farmers across the industry are starting to feel these losses as well in the form of some production cutbacks.

M+P: How is the NTF working to support the industry during these unprecedented times?

Breeding: NTF has been laser-focused on doing everything possible to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the turkey industry. At the outset, we focused on ensuring the industry was deemed “essential” and that regulations were adjusted to keep feed coming to the farms, birds to the plants and finished product to consumers. That included ensuring there was a plan to continue inspections.

Another major task was working with the government on safety guidelines to keep our incredible workers safe and minimize processing disruption. More recently, we have been working to ensure the industry is compensated for its COVID-related losses in the same manner as other industries and has the opportunity to participate in federal commodity procurement programs created by the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Of course, this is all on top of the regulatory, legislative and marketing and promotion work we engage in regardless of a pandemic.

M+P: What does the future of the turkey industry look like? What are some of the goals for the industry as a whole and how is the industry working to achieve them?

Breeding: We see a number of opportunities ahead, all of which could help create greater demand for turkey. The health benefits of turkey are a winner for consumers, and the versatility of our products make it a great choice for busy families and home cooks. In global markets, outside of COVID-19 times, there is a strong demand for protein. Turkey has potential as we look for new export opportunities for our members’ products.