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Second pandemic Thanksgiving boasts higher prices, skimpier supplies, lower quality

“I had to shuffle through a whole case of green beans. The quality is really subpar," said one mom who is also a professional chef.
Image: Poultry companies cite labor shortages as the number-one cost driving up prices, but also transportation and basic supplies.
Poultry companies cite labor shortages as the No. 1 cost driving up prices, in addition to transportation and basic supplies.Ho Ming Yeo / Getty Images/EyeEm

Not even turkeys are safe from inflation this Thanksgiving.

A forkful of the beloved gobbler is costing households more this year, with the price of frozen uncooked whole turkey up by 9.2 percent in the four weeks before Nov. 13, compared to the same period last year, according to data from the research firm NielsenIQ. 

Poultry companies cite labor shortages as the No. 1 cost driving up prices, in addition to transportation and basic supplies. Like many commodities, prices for grain, the key feed item for turkeys, shot up sharply this year before they lowered to a still-elevated price. Corn prices were as high as $6.99 a bushel in June, up from $3.84 in January 2020, and have since lowered to $5.71 a bushel.

“Our entire supply chain at different times has been under stress,” said Brock Stein, the president and CEO of Koch’s Turkey Farm in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. “We’ve seen cost increases across everything from cardboard to wooden pallets to industrial gases. We’ve really seen disruption and cost increases across the board.”

But farmers also grew fewer birds, reducing supply and increasing prices, as farmers bet that consumers would again have pandemic-downsized celebrations and trimmed their flocks accordingly. Turkey meat in cold storage in August, the peak in supply buildup before the holidays, was 425 million pounds, about 125 million pounds lower than the three-year average, according to the Agriculture Department.

Americans typically consume about 45 million turkeys at Thanksgiving. Families who bought their birds this week are likely to have paid even higher prices because consumers who feared shortages bought their turkeys earlier than ever this year, primarily those on the smaller size. That means the ones left in the store are typically heavier and cost more.

Americans typically consume about 45 million turkeys at Thanksgiving.

“There is no Turkey shortage,” said Jay Jandrain, the president and CEO of Butterball, which supplies the most turkeys consumed at Thanksgiving by a single company, about 14 million, or around 30 percent of the total.

“There are ample turkeys that are in stores for the holiday. The only difference is that there’s going to be fewer of the smaller turkeys this year,” Jandrain said. “So when people are looking for their turkey, they’re going to find a larger turkey.”

Price spikes for turkeys accounted for the majority of the overall cost increase for a traditional Thanksgiving spread, but they weren’t the only factor. A two-pack of pie shells is up by 49 cents over last year, a package of a dozen rolls is up by 39 cents, and 30 ounces of pumpkin pie mix is up by 25 cents, according to an American Farm Bureau Federation survey.

“Several factors contributed to the increase in average cost of this year’s Thanksgiving dinner,” Veronica Nigh, a senior economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement. “These include dramatic disruptions to the U.S. economy and supply chains over the last 20 months; inflationary pressure throughout the economy; difficulty in predicting demand during the Covid-19 pandemic and high global demand for food, particularly meat.”

Families are getting more creative this year about how to put on the hallowed feast without breaking the bank.

Kimberly Palmer sees the increased costs from both sides of the counter in a rural county in Northern Virginia. She is a mother of three teenage boys and, with her husband, works as a chef at their slow-roasted barbecue food truck. 

They’ve drastically slashed their household’s monthly food budget by cutting out restaurants, serving meat less frequently and in smaller portions, cooking more soups and making more meals from scratch. When they do have meat, her husband will often buy whole sides of beef and process them into steaks and burgers by hand, saving even more.

“Not only do we feel this as a family, but as a business who sources food from local farm-based establishments,” Palmer said. "The trickle-down has been amazing to see. Particularly since we do everything from scratch, we see the cost on not just whole foods but components of food, such as flour, butter, spices, meats and paper products.”

Her family’s turkey this year cost $25, up by about 20 percent from last year. A bag of flour is up to nearly $6. Canned goods, usually under a dollar, are up to $2 or more. Even the Reddi-Wip for the dollop of cream on the pie has nearly doubled, to $3.88.

She said she has also noticed a decrease in the quality of the produce.

“I had to shuffle through a whole case of green beans,” she said. “The quality is really subpar.” She said she’s not sure what’s driving the challenges: “I don’t know if it’s a reflection of shipping time or transportation challenges.”

She wasn’t expecting higher costs and limited availability to still be issues during this second pandemic Thanksgiving.

“I saw some stabilization around spring with accessibility of supplies, no shortages. To all of a sudden, around the holidays, for things to be more expensive and have less quality ... we should be further along. We have more information,” she said.

“As a family and a business, it costs more to function, and we get much less,” she said. “It’s not like pay for the most part has moved up. It’s just surprising.”

Producers say the elevated costs are here to stay — and aren’t transitory.

“I’d say now we’re looking at, probably, we have found our new normal as a company,” said Stein, of Koch’s Turkey Farm.

Large-scale poultry processors agree.

“There is going to be some inflationary impact that is going to stick around. It’s just a matter of trying to understand what that will look like in the year to come,” Jandrain said — and how much of those costs will continue to be passed to consumers.