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Thanksgiving dinner will be served: The pandemic didn't dent the U.S. turkey supply

Turkey distributors placed orders in 2019, long before the pandemic roiled Thanksgiving plans.
Operations At The Windy N Ranch Turkey Farm Ahead Of Thanksgiving Holiday
Certified organic heritage breed Narragansett turkeys at the Windy N Ranch in Ellensburg, Wash., on Oct. 29, 2016.David Ryder / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Travel restrictions, a recession and socially distant Thanksgiving celebrations won't put a dent in the number of turkeys on store shelves this holiday.

U.S. growers raised 222 million turkeys this year, according to the Agriculture Department, just 3 percent fewer than were raised in 2019. And market analysts are expecting an adequate supply this Thanksgiving as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation to Americans not to travel this season leads to more — but smaller — meals.

Mark Jordan, a poultry economist and the executive director of Leap Market Analytics, said that the supply of whole turkeys on a per capita basis is really tight and that that was the case before Covid-19.

"The wheels were set in motion going back into 2019 in terms of the birds that were ordered," he said.

The industry did face challenges this year, Jordan said, as several poultry plants temporarily closed in April and May as workers were sickened with the coronavirus.

"Some of them were down and they opened back up, and operations have been kind of coming back to normal since June or so, but there has been no drastic supply discrepancies," Jordan said.

That may come as a relief to turkey growers in the Midwest, where most of the country's turkeys come from, but it leaves retailers, who already made those purchases, with a lot of logistics to handle.

When asked about its supply of turkeys, Walmart referred NBC News to an online post, in which it said that with more customers planning for smaller groups, it anticipates a higher preference for smaller turkeys or turkey by the pound.

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"We'll have plenty of whole turkeys, but this year, we've increased our assortment of bone-in and boneless turkey breasts by 20-30% in stores across the country," the post said.

Jordan said turkey sizes depend on whether growers decide to raise males, called toms, which have the large tail fans, or female hens, which are smaller and weigh 12 to 19 pounds.

"Those birds are finding a home in the retail sector, and now it's a matter of how does the holiday season shake out?" Jordan said.

Jordan said any excess turkeys will likely go into cold storage as retailers try to entice customers with steeper discounts around Christmas and Easter.

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