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Thanksgiving Cost May Inch Up After Bird Flu Hits Turkey Flocks

Experts say the cost of turkey will likely be slightly higher this Thanksgiving as a result of bird flu killing 9 million of the birds.

CHICAGO - Fewer turkeys in U.S. warehouses in September will likely mean slightly higher prices this Thanksgiving after a bird flu outbreak wiped out more than 9 million turkeys, experts said after the government monthly cold storage report on Thursday.

Frozen turkey stocks in September totaled 268 million pounds, down 21.3 million from August and 29.2 million less than in September 2014, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Total hens, the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving meals, last month at 130.1 million pounds, dropped 30 million pounds from August and 25 million from last year.

Typically, over a five-year period, turkey stocks on average declined 11 million pounds from the end of August to Sept. 30.

Based on the five-year average, it was a record withdrawal for September, said independent market analyst Bob Brown.

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Still, Brown was reluctant to declare the supply reduction a "shortage," which he said will be dictated more by how much consumers are willing to pay and whether they will turn more to another holiday staple, hams.

"There won't be as many turkeys as last year, but a shortage means you can't get them, which is not the case,” he said. “But, the prices you pay may be higher."

Dan Vaught, an economist at Doane Advisory Services, said turkey supplies undoubtedly will be tighter than last year. But, he said, gauging overall turkey output over the next month is difficult as some processors feverishly ramp up production to mitigate losses from the virus.

"I'd be pretty surprised if retail turkey prices are as low this year as a year ago," said Vaught.

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As the turkey industry braces for the potential of another round of bird flu this winter, their rival saw record amounts of ham and pork on ice after bouncing back from a virus that killed millions of pigs since March 2013.

September pork inventories totaled 656.4 million pounds, a record-high for the month. It eclipsed 2012's 630.4 million pound September top and was the fourth straight monthly record. Ham stocks last month last month at 247.4 million pounds hit an all-time high for any month, surpassing the August record of 237.5 million.

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Brown partly attributed September's pork and ham storage records to increased hog numbers and sluggish ham exports to Mexico.