Poultry Pros: Avian Flu Outbreak Could Impact This Year’s Thanksgiving Feasts

It’s still more than six months away, but amid an avian flu outbreak in the U.S. that’s doing some serious damage to poultry farms, some people are already having to think long and hard about Thanksgiving. Supplies of whole turkeys might not be able to keep up as well as usual with the holiday demand.

The H5N2 strain has spread to 14 states, spreading to the farms of poultry and egg producers in the largest outbreak this country has seen yet: More than 21 million birds have been felled, including 3.3 million turkeys in the nation’s top turkey-producing state, Minnesota, reports Reuters.

Farmers and trade groups say this could add up to a shortage when it’s time to gather around the table in the fall. For one thing, with only seven months before the big day, farmers might not have enough time to raise the amount of turkeys needed.

Once bird flu hits a farm, it takes several months to get it back to where a new flock can be brought in, Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association explained to Reuters. It then takes about four months from the point of chicks arriving in the barns to grow them into a full-sized bird.

But there’s also the matter of getting a chick in the first place — breeder farms can get infected as they have in Minnesota, making it tough to provide enough. And the outbreak shows no sign of stopping in Minnesota yet.

Nearly one in five out of the 240 million turkeys raised in 2014 in the U.S. came from Minnesota farms. Of those, about 30% are sold as whole turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the rest going to make deli meat, frozen meals and other products.

“We’re going to have fewer turkeys coming out because of this,” Olson said, adding that that number isn’t clear yet. “The question we can’t answer is how much this is going to impact our total system, because this isn’t over yet.”

There is some hope — there are stocks of whole turkey hens in cold storage to the tune of 98.7 million pounds, according to federal Agriculture Department data. Many of those birds were raised and slaughtered earlier in the year to be ready for Thanksgiving demand.

There are also those producers who think they can ride out the storm.

“You may see a small impact,” one producer who raises 600,000 turkeys a year told Reuters, adding that there’s some “wiggle room” for the holiday season. “Unless this outbreak gets a lot worse, I don’t see it having a huge impact on our overall supply.”

Bird flu may take bite out of Thanksgiving’s turkey supply [Reuters]