Thanksgiving holiday renews focus on bird flu, rising costs

By: - November 23, 2022 11:13 am
Avian influenza led to the deaths of about 8 million U.S. turkeys in 2022. (Scott Bauer/Agriculture Research Service, USDA)

Avian influenza led to the deaths of about 8 million U.S. turkeys in 2022. (Scott Bauer/Agriculture Research Service, USDA)

Fresh turkeys are more expensive and smaller than usual leading into the Thanksgiving holiday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s due, in part, to the deadly and highly transmissible avian influenza that has wracked turkey producers this year. The virus, which is transmitted by wild, migrating birds, has led to the deaths of about 8 million U.S. turkeys this year.

“I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about whether or not you can carve your turkey on Thanksgiving — it’s going to be there,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said early this month. “Maybe smaller, but it’s going to be there.”

It takes about four months for a turkey to grow to 20 pounds, which makes a Thanksgiving meal for about a dozen people.

It was about three months ago that the deadly bird flu reemerged in Minnesota’s commercial turkey farms, and since then it has infected 19 flocks with more than 900,000 total turkeys, according to USDA data. Minnesota is the country’s leading turkey producer.

The price per pound for a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving is about 22% higher than it was a year ago, the USDA reported late last week. Frozen turkeys are about 8% more expensive. Food prices as a whole have been averaging about 11% higher than a year ago.

South Dakota turkey producers have seen multiple avian influenza outbreaks this year. The illness has struck turkey producers in 14 counties since spring, with turkeys accounting for 1.7 million of the 1.9 million total birds infected in commercial and backyard flocks this year.

The most recent turkey outbreaks infected 71,400 birds in Beadle County in October, and 35,000 birds in Edmunds County, where the outbreak is still active. The lion’s share of outbreaks took place in spring.

Winter temperatures will not curtail the state’s troubles with the virus, according to South Dakota State Veterinarian Beth Thompson, particularly as the wild bird migration continues.

“Our environment is contaminated,” Thompson said in early November. “Viruses will be killed by dry conditions and/or hot temperatures. Moving into the winter will not help with the environmental contamination, unless there is a significant drying.”

No turkey flocks have been infected by the avian influenza this fall in Iowa, which has had the largest bird losses of any state this year. About 15.5 million Iowa birds have been culled because of virus outbreaks, and egg-laying chickens account for most of them. Turkeys totaled about 374,000.

There have been four detections of the virus in domestic commercial and backyard flocks in Iowa in October and November, totaling more than 2.1 million birds. As in South Dakota, most of Iowa’s losses stemmed from earlier in the year during the spring bird migration.

 Gov. Kim Reynolds pardoned two turkeys from her desk for this Thanksgiving.
Gov. Kim Reynolds pardoned two turkeys from her desk for this Thanksgiving. (Screenshot of a recorded pardoning ceremony)

On Nov. 10, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship issued an order canceling live bird shows and the sale of birds at livestock auction markets, swap meets and others. The order was set to expire after 30 days unless there is another virus detection, in which case it will expire 30 days after the detection.

In light of the ongoing threat, Gov. Kim Reynolds held her annual turkey pardoning on Tuesday from afar: She pardoned two male turkeys — Stars and Stripes of an Ellsworth farm — in a ceremony that was recorded at her office desk.

“With a statewide order currently in place to protect flocks from the threat of avian influenza, we’re honoring the tradition a little bit differently this year,” she said.

The annual event is meant to highlight turkey production in the state. Reynolds said there are about 130 turkey farms that produce 12 million of the birds annually.

The most-recent bird flu detection at a commercial turkey facility was Monday in South Dakota, where 35,000 birds were affected.

– South Dakota Searchlight reporter John Hult contributed to this report

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Jared Strong is the senior reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch. He has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.