Butterball: Don’t panic, but there’s a turkey shortage

Butterball, the largest supplier of turkeys in the United States, is warning of a shortage of fresh birds in the nation’s supermarkets. Is your Thanksgiving at risk?

Larry Crowe/AP/File
A Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Butterball, the nation's largest turkey supplier, is warning of a shortage in its supply of large, fresh turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Thanksgiving is still over a week away, but panic over the holiday’s central dish has already begun in earnest.

Butterball, the largest supplier of turkeys in the United States, is warning of a shortage of fresh birds in the nation’s supermarkets. The larger sizes, 16 pounds and over, were particularly affected because the birds had trouble gaining weight, according to the company. Sixteen pounds is the average size for Thanksgiving holiday turkeys in the US.

As a result, sales of fresh Butterball turkeys 16 pounds or heavier to food distributors have dropped by half. The North Carolina-based company, which produces around 41 million turkeys per year (16 percent of the US market), and approximately 1 in 4 Thanksgiving turkeys, released the following statement last week: 

“Butterball and its retail partners have ample supply of frozen whole turkeys of all sizes – small, medium or large. While there may be limited availability on some larger sizes of fresh turkeys, Butterball has shipped 100 percent of customer orders of frozen whole turkeys and products are in distribution across the country. We experienced a decline in weight gains on some of our farms causing a limited availability of large, fresh turkeys. While we are continuing to evaluate all potential causes, we are working to remedy the issue. We sincerely regret the inconvenience that some of our customers have experienced as a result of this issue.”

Turkey production is dipping in the United States, because prices are lower. Approximately 5.86 billion pounds of turkey will be produced by the end of 2013, down from 5.97 billion pounds in 2012. Wholesale prices have fallen slightly in 2013, and the USDA projects they will be somewhere between $1.01 and $1.05 per pound to close out the year.

So, does this mean you’ll be scouring the supermarket shelves in vain next week in search of the elusive bird? Should you grab the first turkey you see after reading this and stash it under your coat, for fear of turkey looters?

Hardly. Butterball’s supply of smaller, fresh turkeys remains at normal levels, and there are plenty of frozen turkeys on hand. Most turkey buyers (85 percent, in fact) go the frozen route, buying their birds in advance and letting them thaw for three to five days. What’s more, other major US suppliers, including Cargill and Foster Farms, have reported no shortages.

This isn’t the first time that the poultry industry has spread news of a shortage. In late January, just in time for the high-demand Super Bowl weekend, the National Chicken Council released a statement noting that the wholesale price of buffalo wings had skyrocketed and supply had shrunk,  Both statements were true, but America made it through the Super Bowl with its wing reserves intact.

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