Are more turkeys going to survive Thanksgiving this year because of the pandemic?

Thanksgiving meal - turkey
Photo via Mark Gunn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The upcoming holidays will feel very different this year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Turkey consumption, which has been steadily on the rise in the U.S. for the past 50 years, will be significantly affected by COVID-19, according to the Washington Post. Travel and social distancing obstacles are expected to shrink the size of holiday gatherings, along with their accompanying Thanksgiving meals. Does this mean more turkeys will survive this year’s Thanksgiving holiday?

Not quite, by the looks of it. However, turkey producers expect to find themselves in a bind as the holiday approaches. Farmers from more than 2,500 turkey farms all over the country—likely already affected by COVID-19’s impact on harvest schedules, heightened workloads, and limited worker availability—reportedly fear their supply of smaller turkeys will not be enough. Concerns are also high that bigger turkeys will cause a major clog. Some farmers are even opting to reduce their turkey sizes by changing their diets, adjusting the temperature of their surroundings, and scheduling their slaughter earlier.

Retailers are also being forced to decrease their usual order for larger birds and cater to the expected consumer shift toward premade meals, turkey-by-the-pound, turkey parts, and meat alternatives.

“We’re looking to decrease the number of turkeys over 16 pounds and stock 20% more turkeys under 16 pounds this year,” Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of supermarket chain Stew Leonard’s, told Today. “We think people will buy a smaller turkey and a turkey breast to supplement the gap a bit. We’ve found turkey breast to be popular because people are pursuing healthier lifestyles.” Walmart, the biggest grocer in the United States, is also reportedly increasing its availability of boneless and bone-in turkey breasts.

The change in demand is largely due to a decrease in travel and in-person interaction during the coronavirus outbreak. According to popular turkey supplier Butterball, around 30% of Americans will spend Thanksgiving with only their immediate family. This is a 12% increase from last year. Fewer people are also opting to fly home for the holidays, as shown by flight bookings for November, which are one-third lower than last year.

Despite this shift, some still believe consumers will ultimately stick with tradition. An online survey commissioned by NCSolutions, a New York-based media firm that caters to companies in the consumer packaged goods industry, found that 83% of American participants said this year’s Thanksgiving is equally, if not more, important than in 2019. Additionally, 70% of respondents rated turkey as their favorite Thanksgiving dish.

“Historically, our data shows a 7% increase in household grocery spending in the weeks prior to Thanksgiving,” Linda Dupree, CEO of NCSolutions, said. “We are currently observing household spending on groceries to be up 24% compared to the same time last year. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a great disruptor for many things, all indicators point to Thanksgiving 2020 being an important facet of the fabric of American family.”

An average of 40 million turkeys are eaten around Thanksgiving per year, according to the National Turkey Federation (NTF), an industry trade group. While demand for the holiday birds is expected to remain unchanged, the size and type of turkey is not.

“Some may opt for a slightly smaller turkey or a bone-in turkey breast this year, but we expect there will still be demand for larger whole bird turkeys, too,” Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing at NTF, told Today. “Thanksgiving leftovers are one of the best parts of the meal. We’ve all been cooking a lot more over the past few months, and leftovers to keep or share with others are a valuable commodity.”

According to research conducted by Butterball—which reportedly sells 30% of America’s 40 million Thanksgiving turkeys—75% of consumers still plan to serve the same size turkey or a larger turkey than they did last year. If the increase in people developing new hobbies during the pandemic is any indication, it may also mean a surge in first-time cooks hoping to conquer a classic turkey for their 2020 Thanksgiving meal.

Nicole Johnson, director of Butterball’s popular Turkey Talk Line, told The Washington Post that in an average year, the helpline receives 100,000 calls, texts, and chats, and 15,000 questions are typical on Thanksgiving Day. Most have to do with the process of preparing a turkey feast.

“I think we’re going to be busier than ever,” Johnson stated. “With smaller gatherings and people not going out to restaurants, I think our numbers are going to soar. And I think part of our job this year is trying to celebrate the good.”

Sources: Washington Post, The Economist, CNN, Today, Progressive Grocer, Chicago Sun-Times

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