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How Are Smaller Thanksgiving Gatherings Threatening the Turkey Supply Chain?

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Carving Thanksgiving turkey

With large family gatherings off the menu, few households will need to purchase a whole turkey this Thanksgiving. What will this mean for suppliers?

How Is COVID-19 Impacting Thanksgiving Celebrations?

In mid-October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that “a small dinner with only people who live in your household” was the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Research suggests that social distancing guidelines, travel restrictions, and safety advice from organizations like the CDC will impact holiday plans for the majority of American families. A Numerator survey found that almost 70% of Americans are planning to celebrate Thanksgiving differently this year, while a Butterball study found that the number of people planning to only host their immediate family has increased from 18% (in 2019) to 30%.

With the increase of immediate-family-only Thanksgiving dinners, the demand for larger turkeys is expected to plummet. These unprecedented circumstances have also given rise to a wave of first-time Thanksgiving cooks who might be more inclined to purchase smaller cuts of meat, turkey breasts, or (gasp!) scrap the turkey altogether. Fewer restaurant reservations during the holiday season are also expected to impact turkey sales.

How Are Turkey Suppliers Being Impacted by Changing Consumer Demands?

Retailers such as Giant Eagle and Stew Leonard are opting to purchase smaller turkeys in anticipation of this shift in consumer demand, while Walmart is working to increase its stock of boneless and bone-in turkey breasts.

The U.S.’s 2,500 turkey farms are struggling to adapt to these changes in demand. Many will be unable to accommodate requests for smaller turkeys and face being left with a surplus of larger, unwanted birds.

Turkey farmers typically begin planning for the holiday season way ahead of time. Contracts to purchase newborn turkeys (poults) can be written up to a year in advance, and it takes months to grow the birds to their proper size. In most cases, farmers don’t have the option to simply slaughter the turkeys earlier when they are smaller because they have been raised to reach full maturity and a set size at a set time.  

Kill a bird before this point, and it will be bony and unappetizing — not to mention that fresh turkeys only have a 21-day shelf life, and frozen poultry is sold at a negligible price. 

The farmers that do attempt to slaughter their birds early face another set of COVID-19-related challenges.

Meat-processing plants, where working conditions are crowded and intensive, have suffered from major coronavirus outbreaks. Earlier this year, the CDC reported that 9% of workers at these facilities had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The resulting closures, slower line speeds, bottlenecking, and destruction of live animals that had nowhere to be processed are making the fresh turkey supply chain even more challenging to operate.

It’s impossible to predict the extent to which coronavirus will re-shape consumer behavior this Thanksgiving. The turkey supply chain must adapt as best it can and have hope that enough Americans will stick to tradition and enjoy a hearty portion of turkey this November.

After all, there’s always leftovers.



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