Butterball's Fresh Turkey Shortage Means Gobble Trouble for Thanksgiving

Nation's biggest producer says birds won't be fattened up in time for the annual feast.

A turkey in the Staten Island borough of New York on the eve of Thanksgiving 2012. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Nov 14, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

We regularly use the term "factory farming" to describe large-scale meat production, but the fact is, animals aren’t widgets, and production doesn’t always go as smoothly as it might for a manufacturer of say, plastic straws.

Case in point: Yesterday, iconic American turkey producer Butterball announced that supermarkets and other retailers, which placed orders with the company as far back as June, will only be getting half of the large, fresh turkeys (those weighing 16 pounds or more) they were counting on. The snag? The birds didn’t gain enough weight in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Butterball would not speak with TakePart about what caused the problem, but a statement sent out by the company explains it this way:

“We experienced a decline in weight gains on some of our farms causing a limited availability of large, fresh turkeys. While we are continuing to evaluate all potential causes, we are working to remedy the issue.”

Keith Williams, spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation, says that while Butterball announced limited supplies of its brand of large, fresh turkeys, other turkey producers are not experiencing similar problems, nor is there a shortage of frozen whole turkeys, which make up 85 percent of the overall market.

“Most people do buy frozen turkeys,” he says. “Fresh whole birds account for 15 percent of the market, and that’s divided among national and regional brands. In this case, we’re just talking about one company, and fresh birds over 16 pounds.”

Pasture-raised-turkey producer Willie Bird has the opposite problem. The Sonoma County, Calif.–based farm raises 40,000 turkeys on 400 acres.

“We’re short on smaller turkeys,” says farm manager Beagle Brodsky. “We’ve had no rain in Northern California, and the turkeys tend to eat when it’s dry, so we got bigger turkeys this year.”

But Brodsky says he doesn’t expect a bump in sales to come from the Butterball shortage.

“Butterball is a commodity turkey,” he says.

Indeed, a lot of commodity turkey is produced in the U.S. At more than 7 billion pounds produced a year, the U.S. is the largest turkey producer in the world. Americans eat a whopping 16.2 pounds of it a year. In 1910, when turkey was considered a seasonal product and not a year-round ingredient, Americans ate less than one pound a year.

Today, production is not only year-round but, like other animal production, far more concentrated as well. In 2011, Minnesota ranked first in turkey production, followed by North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, and Virginia. At 1.3 billion pounds of turkey processed a year, Butterball is hands down the nation’s largest processor.

Of course, a shortage of large, fresh turkeys at Thanksgiving isn’t the industry’s only problem.

Antibiotic use in turkey production—to speed growth and keep large, confined flocks healthy—has many experts concerned. In the FDA’s Retail Meat Report released in February, the agency discovered that salmonella found on nearly half of the ground turkey and chicken tested was resistant to more than three antimicrobial classes of drugs.

Apparently, there’s an ongoing shortage of poultry nutritionists too.

And last October, Mercy for Animals released a video documenting abuse at five Butterball facilities. The images of workers kicking and throwing birds were horrific.

So while a Butterball-specific shortage of large, fresh turkeys two weeks before Thanksgiving is newsworthy, the real truth is: Fresh versus frozen isn’t the biggest issue we consider when picking out our Thanksgiving bird.