Avian Flu Causes Shortage of Turkeys and Spike in Prices

By Lauren Wanko

While there are stacks of cranberries, stuffing mix, gravy and other fixings for a Thanksgiving meal there aren’t enough turkeys at the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

“You wouldn’t think that the FoodBank would rely on, or be affected by, pricing and market changes because most of the food we receive is actually donated. But in the case of Thanksgiving, more than any other time, we are,” said Executive Director Carlos Rodriguez.

Urner Barry is a commodity market reporting firm. Russ Whitman is Vice President of its Poultry Division and blames the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak.

“It’s had a tremendous effect. This was the largest outbreak of high path ever recorded in U.S. history,” Whitman said.

The US Department of Agriculture indicates the highly pathogenic avian influenza was first identified in the country in December 2014. It has been detected in commercial and backyard poultry flocks, wild birds or captive wild birds in 21 states. The last outbreak was identified in June 2015 and resulted in the depopulation of 7.5 million turkeys and 42.1 million egg-layer and pullet chickens. Whitman says demand for turkeys started on the deli lines this past summer.

“All those turkeys were gone, so what they had to do was make some really tough decisions, they being turkey processors of the United States,” he said. “They brought up some of the turkeys that were designated for Thanksgiving to satisfy those incredibly high deli needs that take place in June, July and August.”

Now the FoodBank is trying to satisfy the increased need for Thanksgiving turkeys.

“Our shortfall based on the number of families that we think are going to need turkeys this year is about 2,000 turkeys,” said Rodriguez.

The FoodBank starts planning for Thanksgiving in May. That’s when they place the orders. They usually receive their first shipment of turkeys by October. They’re stored here in their freezers until mid-November. Then they’re distributed to their 300 partner programs.

This year the nonprofit anticipated the need for 12,000 turkeys. The FoodBank buys 10,000 and relies on donations to cover the rest. However, his holiday season they need 14,000 turkeys. Rodriguez says the nonprofit was slammed with a 17 percent increase in turkey prices this year.

“So it’s going to hit us two ways,” he said. “It’s going to cost us more to bring in what we arranged to bring in, and there’s just less turkeys at a higher cost for anyone who wants to donate in the community.”

“Wholesale turkeys prices are right now at all time highs. We’re quoting, we being Urner Barry is quoting, $1.40 a pound right now on wholesale turkeys. Last year for comparative purposes, we were at $1.24 a pound, and the year prior we were at $1.07. That’s more than a 30 percent increase in two years.

Whitman says he understands why the FoodBank is struggling for donations. While prices are at an all time high, supplies have reached record lows and he doesn’t predict industry production to return to expected levels until next year.

“The most recent data that we have tells us in September we’ve never had fewer whole birds in the big freezer warehouses,” Whitman said.

Still, Rodriguez is hopeful the FoodBank will receive enough donations to provide a Thanksgiving meal to those in need this holiday season.