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How Will Avian Flu Impact Thanksgiving Turkey Supply?



There’s yet another looming shortage, and this time the blame isn’t being directed at supply chain woes—but at wild birds flying overhead.


Avian flu can spread when infected wild birds traverse their typical travel routes, sharing their germs with various types of flocks beneath them. In the outbreak that was first detected in January, a “highly pathogenic” form was found in both wild birds and flocks within commercial and backyard operations.


So far this year, it has “affected” over 47 million turkeys, according to the USDA—and the impact is being felt even more keenly with Thanksgiving approaching. Between predicted shortages and the impact of inflation, turkey prices are up 73% compared to last year.


In the following WTEN video, one turkey farmer describes the hardships being experienced.



Source: YouTube



What is Avian Flu?


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Avian influenza is caused by influenza Type A virus (influenza A). There are many variations of this virus, which are classified as either “low pathogenic” or “highly pathogenic.” This categorization is “based on their genetic features and the severity of the disease they cause in poultry.” Although the USDA says most viruses are the former, the type currently impacting the turkey population falls within the latter category, as noted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


“Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5) viruses have been detected in U.S. wild aquatic birds, commercial poultry and backyard or hobbyist flocks beginning in January 2022,” the CDC said. “These are the first detections of HPAI A(H5) viruses in the U.S. since 2016. Preliminary genetic sequencing and RT-PCR testing on some virus specimens shows these viruses are HPAI A(H5N1) viruses from clade 2.3.4.4.”


Here's a January-April 2022 timeline provided by the CDC:

  • “From late 2021 to 2022, the predominant HPAI H5 virus causing poultry outbreaks worldwide was the wild-bird adapted HPAI H5N1 virus, according to WHOA (formally known as OIE [610 KB, 6 pages]).”

  • “In January 2022, the first HPAI H5N1 virus (clade 2.3.4.4b) infection in wild birds in the United States since 2016 was reported by USDA/APHIS. Additional detections in wild birds were subsequently reported, visit the Current Situation Summary page for more information.”

  • In February 2022, USDA/APHIS announced an HPAI H5N1 outbreak in turkeys in a commercial poultry facility, marking the first HPAI detection in commercial poultry in the United States since 2020.”



How Will it Impact Thanksgiving?


In addition to other related concerns, the timing of the infections is expected to make a big dent in late-year production, as the USDA notes in an update that included data through June.


“While HPAI outbreaks in commercial facilities have diminished, losses that occurred in the spring have affected USDA’s turkey production forecasts for the remainder of 2022. HPAI’s impact on production is expected to be most significant in the second and third quarters of 2022. Second-quarter production is forecast at 1.29 billion pounds, about 8 percent below the same quarter in 2021. Similarly, third-quarter production is forecast to be about 6 percent below the same period in 2021. The industry starts to raise young birds in July for its November production. USDA projects turkey production to rebound close to previous year levels by the fourth quarter, which includes the Thanksgiving holiday.”


As of October 26, 2022, the USDA reports that there are 569 flocks with birds that have been tested and confirmed to have HPAI across 43 states. Of those, 248 are commercial flocks and 321 are backyard flocks. In total, 47.73 million birds have been “affected”—meaning they are on “confirmed infected premises.”




Source: USDA


In its Q3 results, Hormel Foods reported a drop in sales for its Jennie-O Turkey Store secondary to the avian flu outbreak: “As anticipated, volume and sales declined as a result of the supply impacts on the company’s vertically integrated supply chain from highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).”


Citing CFO Jacinth Smiley in a September 1 earnings call, Supply Chain Dive reported that the company “expects supply to remain constrained through first quarter of fiscal year 2023 after recently identifying positive cases within its flock. The company expects volumes in the fourth quarter, which includes Thanksgiving, to be off by 30%.”


“Lower industry-wide turkey supplies are expected to keep prices higher near term,” Smiley was quoted as saying.


However, according to reporting by Forbes, turkey-giant Butterball is expecting to be in better shape, with “slightly more turkeys for sale this Thanksgiving compared with last year’s” since it hasn’t been as severely impacted by HPAI’s spread.


Forbes writer Chloe Sorvino says the difference in impact on the two companies can be chocked up to location.


“The main reason is geography,” writes Sorvino. “Jennie-O has been hit harder than Butterball partly because most of Jennie-O’s production is based in Minnesota, which is in the middle of a wild bird migratory fly zone. That’s been fueling the spread. Butterball, however, mostly draws its turkeys from the South, with farms mostly in North Carolina and a few sprinkled throughout Missouri and Arkansas.”



Thanksgiving Optimism


In its 2022 Thanksgiving Outlook Report published at the end of August, Butterball struck an optimistic tone—but also included respondents’ inflation concerns this year. The online survey among a “nationally representative sample” of 1,005 U.S. adults was conducted between July 6-7, 2022.


“According to the findings, people are excited for Thanksgiving with nearly 90% of Americans planning to celebrate in 2022 as concerns around COVID-19 shrink,” Butterball said in the announcement. “However, concerns around inflation – particularly at the grocery store – are driving the need to get creative with cutting costs all without sacrificing holiday celebrations.”


Among the key findings:

  • The Celebration: “Nearly 90% of people plan to celebrate this year – an increase from 2021.”

  • The Turkey: “Among those celebrating, 85% of hosts are going to have turkey at the center of the table and 90% plan to buy the same size turkey or larger than last year.”

  • The Guest List: “Only 8% of hosts concerned with inflation say they plan to shrink their guest list to control costs.”


But results indicated finding ways to deal with inflation will be part of the celebration, too.

“While hosts may not be willing to compromise their gathering size or turkey, they do have concerns about inflation,” Butterball said. “Notably, 44% of Thanksgiving hosts are concerned about rising prices, specifically at the grocery store (87%) and gas pump (75%).”

According to Butterball, the findings “reveal multiple ways hosts may mitigate the costs of this year's Thanksgiving meal:

  • 55% of hosts concerned about inflation said they would shop for deals for parts of the entire meal. This marks a departure from early in the pandemic when hosts were concerned about minimizing the time in store and number of stores shopped.

  • To manage costs, hosts might economize with the sides they prepare (32%), cook more from scratch (24%), look for ways to make the meal less formal (20%) or ask guests to bring a side (15%).”


"While people are eager to gather with friends and loved ones this Thanksgiving, we are seeing external factors like inflation that will influence the way people celebrate," said Rebecca Welch, director of retail brand marketing at Butterball. "But we also see celebrators planning to get creative with ways to cut costs that won't compromise a memorable Thanksgiving. We know people want to celebrate with a turkey at the center of the table, and as always, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is here to share its 41 years of Thanksgiving expertise."


To learn more about the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, visit Butterball.com.


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