'Out of Turkey' Signs at Jersey Mike's Spotlight Bird-Flu Aftermath

  • Meat output at 15-year low after death of 8 million birds
  • Hormel sales suffer while wholesale price climbs to record

Get your turkey subs while you can.

U.S. restaurants and retailers are facing a shortage of turkey-breast meat, with prices at a record high. The nation’s worst outbreak of avian influenza is to blame. The virus killed almost 8 million turkeys this spring, sending production to a 15-year low. The poultry industry is bracing for another outbreak as migrating birds threaten to spread bird flu again this fall.

Hormel Foods Corp. said last week sales volumes at its Jennie-O Turkey Store will be down 20 percent in the second half because of the disease. The effects have now spread to sandwich shops. Jersey Mike’s Subs, a franchise chain with more than 1,500 stores in 40 states, is carrying signs apologizing for being out of the meat.

Prices for wholesale, fresh turkey breasts gained 41 percent from a year ago to an all-time high of $5.70 a pound Monday, according to Urner Barry, a company that tracks food costs. Prices for frozen turkeys are up 17 percent at $1.36 a pound, also a record.

“The prices for turkey-breast meat are so far above the previous record, it could be that some suppliers aren’t willing to pay enough to get it,” said Tom Elam, the Carmel, Indiana-based president of consulting firm FarmEcon LLC.

About two-thirds of the nation’s flock are raised for breast meat from toms that can weigh up to 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms), according to Elam. It was those birds, rather than the smaller, whole turkeys found on the dinner table at Thanksgiving, that were disproportionately affected by the outbreak, he said.

“After all this death, all these meat birds never came to slaughter,” said Russ Whitman, vice president at Urner Barry in Bayville, New Jersey.

Fewer Eggs

It’s been months since the outbreak peaked, but the after-effects are still very real. Affected farms are taking up to 12 weeks to return to normal following culls and the disinfecting. Getting production back to normal could take a year, Whitman said.

Domestic output will drop 8.7 percent to 1.35 billion pounds (612,000 metric tons) in the third quarter, the lowest for the period since 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Production was also down last year to the lowest since 2010 after high feed costs stymied profits.

While bringing a turkey to market only takes about 4 1/2 months from when it’s hatched, finding enough baby birds to repopulate barns is now a problem, Whitman said. Turkey eggs in incubators at the start of September were down 15 percent from a year earlier, USDA data shows.

Bird flu could soon return as the weather gets colder. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on Tuesday sent out training materials to prepare turkey farmers.

Thanksgiving Unaffected

One positive for consumers: there’ll be enough Thanksgiving turkeys to go around. Frozen whole hens are as plentiful as they were last year, said Keith Williams, a spokesman for the National Turkey Federation. Butterball LLC, the largest U.S. supplier, said it expects to meet all of its whole-bird orders for Thanksgiving.

The shortage of breast meat may ease as colder weather brings a seasonal dip in consumption. Demand for turkey deli meat is strong in summer, according to Whitman, while people switch to warmer foods such as chili and soup in the winter.

A sign at Jersey Mike's tells customers that the chain is out of turkey.
A sign at Jersey Mike's tells customers that the chain is out of turkey.
Source: Bloomberg

For now, regulars at Jersey Mike’s seeking a turkey and provolone sub must be patient, because supply deficits could continue until the end of the year, said Josie Capozzi, a spokeswoman. To appease customers, the chain has introduced the Oven Roasted Chicken Club sub -- chickens raised for meat weren’t affected by the bird flu outbreak.

“It took a lot of pressure off of turkey, selling chicken,” said Dan Shanahan, the company’s Chicago area director.

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