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There’s a shortage of large, fresh Butterball turkeys

The time for Americans to clean out some fridge space before Thanksgiving may have come a little early this year. Butterball, the US’s top maker of Thanksgiving turkeys, is having some problems delivering the bigger birds to stores around the country.

The company told retailers that their orders for fresh turkeys 16 pounds (7.3 kg) and bigger have been cut by 50%, according to a press release from Big Y, a grocery chain in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Butterball, which produces around 20% of the US’s turkeys and 1.3 billion pounds of turkey meat a year, has confirmed in a emailed statement that “there may be limited availability on some larger sizes of fresh turkeys” and that the shortage is nationwide.

This is a big worry because 16 pounds is the average weight of turkeys eaten at Thanksgiving, which 88% of US households celebrate, according to EatTurkey.com, an industry site. According to Butterball’s handy calculator, a 16-pound turkey would feed a dinner party of six adults and six children.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean there’ll be no big turkeys to be had. It’s only fresh turkeys from Butterball that are affected; the company sells frozen ones too, and there are several other manufacturers who will be only too delighted to fill the gap. But what might be more reason for panic than a turkey shortage is what’s causing it.

“We experienced a decline in weight gains on some of our farms causing a limited availability of large, fresh turkeys,” said Butterball’s statement. Translation: Its turkeys aren’t growing as fast as they used to.

This is odd because the industry has cranked out steadily heavier turkeys with each passing year. In 2011, the average turkey weighed some 57% more than in 1965, according to the US Department of Agriculture. And though it’s the most popular size, a 16-pound turkey isn’t even that big. The birds raised for processing average 28 pounds.

Odder still, though, is that Butterball, the US’s turkey-farming powerhouse, isn’t sure why its birds stay svelter than usual—or isn’t yet saying. “While we are continuing to evaluate all potential causes, we are working to remedy the issue,” says the company.

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