The Mystery of Butterball’s Too-Skinny Turkeys

By now you might have heard there’s a shortage of 16-plus-pound, unfrozen Butterball turkeys for Thanksgiving. On some farms, the birds just weren’t putting on weight like they normally do, the company has explained, so it will be shipping out half as many large, fresh birds this year.

Butterball said in a statement that it’s looking into “all potential causes,” although so far the company has refused to speculate as to what could keep its turkeys from packing on the pounds. “Butterball does not have any additional information to share at this time,” a representative wrote in an e-mail.

It’s the first time the company has faced this problem, no doubt part of why the slimmer fowl remain shrouded in mystery. It appears to be an issue limited only to Butterball, according to a spokesman for the National Turkey Federation, and not an industrywide phenomenon. Still, Butterball accounts for one in four Thanksgiving turkeys, so that could mean smaller birds abound at celebrations this year.

At least one supermarket chain, Big Y, has said it sourced additional turkeys from other suppliers to compensate for the big-size Butterball shortage—an indication that other growers didn’t have trouble with big birds this year. September figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually show that the average weight of slaughtered turkeys—30.2 pounds per live bird—was up 2.9 percent from a year earlier.

Were the turkeys sick? David Harvey, an agricultural economist at the USDA Economic Research Service, says he has not heard of any widespread disease problems.

Did it perhaps have to do with a change in husbandry practices? The use of hormones is already prohibited in raising all poultry and pork. Antibiotics are allowed, and, in addition to preventing and treating diseases, the drugs boost the rate of weight gain.

Ultimately, Butterball’s shortage is not as bad as you might imagine. It only affects the supply of the company’s fresh turkeys, so if someone insists on having that giant, Rockwellian centerpiece for the holiday, there are still plenty of frozen birds from Butterball and other brands. The frozen fowl make up the vast majority of turkey sales anyhow, and most American families won’t go hungry if there are fewer than 16 pounds of poultry on the table.

The average turkey was more than one-third lighter in 1963 (PDF). Any guests who complain can stuff it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.