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A RARE BIRD

Americans are causing a small-turkey shortage for Thanksgiving

Frozen turkeys in a pile.
REUTERS/Mike Blake
Big turkey time.
  • Karen Ho
By Karen Ho

Global finance and economics reporter

Americans on the hunt for smaller turkeys for Thanksgiving this year are in for a challenge.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports (pdf) that national demand for smaller frozen hens, which weigh 8 lbs to 16 lbs (4 kg to 7 kg), is higher than male turkeys, which weigh 16 lbs to 24 lbs.

It’s a result of Americans staying home for Thanksgiving, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, rather than attending multi-household gatherings.

But while demand for smaller turkeys is up, turkey farmers have been raising larger than average turkeys all year. Data from the USDA show the average weight of turkeys prior to slaughter this year has been higher than the multi-year average, and about the same as last year. A 16-pound store-bought turkey weighs about 20 lbs at slaughter.

The average weights of slaughtered turkeys typically falls from October to November as producers shift from raising large birds for deli meat and parts to the smaller birds to be cooked whole. Those whole birds are frozen and put into storage to build up the holiday supply. This helps ensure there’s enough in stock for peak holiday demand but also means the industry is less able to adapt to the changes in consumer demand brought by pandemic restrictions.

The turkeys designated for holiday centerpieces this year were raised and slaughtered starting in June, well before warnings from health officials and data from Canada showed infections rising after their Thanksgiving gatherings in October. Of course, they were nearly all produced after the start of the pandemic.

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