Holiday Turkey Could Be in Short Supply

The 2015 holiday season in the United States is in trouble already: there may not be a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey on the table this year and if there is it will surely cost a lot more. A dangerous bird flu is sweeping the US Midwest poultry industry and experts say they may not have time to raise enough turkeys for market in time for Thanksgiving.

The virulent H5N2 strain has already spread to 14 states and led to the deaths or scheduled euthanizations of more than 21 million birds, including 3.3 million turkeys in Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey producer.

Farmers say recovery from the virus requires a lot of money and time. Once the present populations of birds are destroyed entire facilities need to be turned inside out in cleaning and sanitizing for a new generation of turkeys. Typically, it takes four months to raise turkeys and that would not leave them time to process them all for the demand that typically comes with each holiday season.

Scientists believe migratory waterfowl carry the virus. Wild ducks and geese don’t become sick from it, but can spread it via their droppings. The virus then finds its way into poultry barns despite tight biosecurity, perhaps carried in on workers’ footwear or clothing, or maybe hitchhiking on contaminated dust whipped up by the wind.

Of the nearly 240 million turkeys raised last year in the United States, nearly one in five came from Minnesota farms. About 30 percent of the Minnesota birds are sold as whole turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The remaining 70 percent are sold year-round for deli meat, frozen meals, ground turkey and other products, according to industry data.

Meanwhile, some help for holiday feasts could come from cold storage, where stocks of whole turkey hens were at 98.7 million pounds as of the end of March, a 24 percent jump over February and up 16 percent over the same period a year earlier, according to federal Agriculture Department data.

Will there be enough to meet this year’s demands? That seems to be up in the air at present because no one knows how much longer this virus event will last or how much more damage it will do.

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