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Industry recovering from 2015 when bird flu took toll on market

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaching, the turkey industry appears to have recovered from a spring 2015 outbreak of avian influenza that claimed about 8 million turkeys.

“Processing of hen turkeys is running ahead of 2015’s pace by 10 percent and toms by 3 percent so we have more birds available than this same point in time in 2015,” said Brian Mabry, U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman. “Turkey production and the turkey market have recovered nicely.”

“Because of the loss of turkeys to avian influenza, there will be more turkeys and especially more fresh turkeys this year. Last year supply was adequate because of the supply of frozen birds. This year, with no losses of birds to avian influenza, we should have an adequate supply of fresh and frozen turkey,” said R. Michael Hulet, assistant professor of animal science at Penn State.

The avian influenza hit 15 states with those in the Midwest, the hardest hit with 110 confirmed detections in Minnesota and 77 in Iowa, according to the USDA.

“We weren’t directly affected. There was never an infusion of the highly pathogenic flu in the Pennsylvania turkey population and bird population in general,” said Will Nichols, state Department of Agriculture spokesman.

However, the influenza outbreak in the Midwest led to a shortage of turkey products that lasted into this spring and also led to higher prices last year, said Fred Imler II, a partner in Imler’s Poultry of Duncansville.

The turkey industry in the United States is huge.

Companies involved in the production and processing of turkey provide 308,400 jobs that pay $16.9 billion in wages to families throughout the country, generate more than $80.1 billion in annual economic impact and about $5.6 billion in taxes, according to the National Turkey Federation.

The turkey industry in Pennsylvania employs as many as 2,141 people across the state and generates an additional 7,399 jobs in supplier and ancillary industries. Not only does the turkey industry create good jobs in Pennsylvania, but the industry also contributes to the economy as a whole. The broader economic impact flows throughout the economy, generating business for firms seemingly unrelated to the turkey industry. In 2014, the industry was responsible for as much as $2.3 billion in total economic activity throughout the state, creating or supporting as many as 9,540 total jobs, according to the NTF.

Pennsylvania ranks ninth in the U.S. in turkey production, Hulet said.

“Pennsylvania produces 6.5 to 7 million turkeys each year. Pennsylvania produces mostly antibiotic free and organic turkeys, and because of that, the production dropped from earlier production of 12 million birds to 7 million for the last five years,” Hulet said.

Turkey prices are expected to be “reasonable” this year for Thanksgiving.

Wholesale prices are 8 to 9 percent below last year.  Wholesale prices for frozen whole bird spot market trading is 12 to 13 percent behind last year at this time, Mabry said.

“The USDA has predicted an average price for frozen turkey to be around $1.60 per pound. Fresh turkey is higher in price because of supply and demand.  However, many stores run turkeys as loss-leaders for very low prices if you purchase a certain amount of grocery items from the store. However, because of the supply, turkeys should be reasonable in price this year,” Hulet said.

“Prices are down slightly. This is one of the biggest holidays for the retailers; they want to bring shoppers in. They will almost give turkeys away so the shopper will buy their whole grocery list at their store,” Imler said.

Weis Markets is among those offering a program where its shoppers can get a free turkey.

“We have a free turkey program with seven different options,” said spokesman Dennis Curtin. “Weis customers can generate reward points through Nov. 24 and redeem them from Nov. 10 through Nov. 25. To qualify they need to generate 50 rewards points while using their Weis Preferred Shoppers card. Customers earn 10 reward points for every $50 in a Weis Markets store.”

Martin’s Food Markets and Giant Food Stores are no longer offering a free turkey program. Instead, the stores are offering a Nature’s Promise Fresh turkey that is antibiotic and hormone free and is available at 99 cents per pound pre-ordered through Friday (Nov. 11), said spokeswoman Samantha Krepps.

Giant Eagle will offer shoppers a complete array of turkey products including fresh and frozen grade A turkeys and turkey breasts. Frozen grade A turkey will sell for 69 cents per pound, said spokesman Dick Roberts.

Imler said the most popular size of turkey for Thanksgiving is 18-26 pounds for large family gatherings and there are not as many of the 10-14 pound turkeys on the market.

“They are not money makers for the producers. The money makers are the 20-26 pound turkeys that they can process for deli items, parts or ground turkey. That is where the money is,” Imler said.

Imler’s, the largest poultry distributor in the area, distributes turkeys and turkey parts over a 200-mile radius around the Altoona area.

“We sell ground turkey, turkey filets and drumsticks. We have a lot of people who at Thanksgiving and Christmas come in the store looking for gizzards, livers and hearts,” Imler said.

Imler said the week before Thanksgiving is when business ramps up.

“We start the Thanksgiving rush in the middle of that week. I remember when I was kid, I would go to work with my dad at 3 a.m. and not get home until about 11 p.m. It is a busy week, but nothing compared to the summer business we take care of,” Imler said. “Last year we shipped 28,550 turkeys the week before Thanksgiving, about 60 percent frozen and 40 percent fresh. The numbers this year will be similar.”

Frozen turkeys continue to be more popular than fresh turkeys.

“Fresh birds can only be available for the last month, and therefore cannot supply the needs for the Thanksgiving and Christmas market demands. We produce 240 million birds per year or around 20 million per month.  Half of that number are hens, so only around 10 million are available and the number consumed during the holidays is 30  percent of the total market.  So only around 15 percent of the birds consumed are fresh and 85 percent are frozen turkeys,” Hulet said.

“We sell more frozen as far as wholesale. In retail stores, we sell fresh turkeys, very few frozen at retail stores. We’ve always done that, normally grocery stores sell many more frozen,” Imler said.

However, the number of fresh turkeys purchased has increased over the past several years, said Rachel Cloninger, PennAg Industries spokeswoman.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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