Thanksgiving holiday renewed focus on bird flu and rising costs

Fresh turkeys are more expensive and smaller than usual, according to the US Department of Agriculture, leading to Thanksgiving.

This is partly due to the deadly and easily transmitted bird flu that has hit turkey producers this year. The virus, carried by wild migratory birds, has killed about 8 million US turkeys this year.

“I don’t think you need to worry about whether or not you can carve your turkey on Thanksgiving — it will be there,” US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said earlier this month. “Maybe smaller, but it will be there.”

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

About three months ago, the deadly bird flu resurfaced in Minnesota’s commercial turkey farms and has since infected 19 flocks totaling more than 900,000 turkeys, according to USDA data. Minnesota is the country’s leading turkey producer.

The price per pound of a fresh Thanksgiving turkey is about 22% higher than a year ago, the USDA reported late last week. Frozen turkeys are about 8% more expensive. Overall food prices are on average about 11% higher than a year ago.

In Iowa, which had the highest bird loss of any state this year, no flocks of turkeys were infected with bird flu this fall. About 15.5 million Iowa birds have been killed because of virus outbreaks, and most of them are egg-laying chickens. Turkeys totaled about 374,000.

In October and November there were four detections of the virus in domestic commercial and backyard flocks totaling more than 2.1 million birds in Iowa. Most of the casualties in Iowa came earlier in the year during spring migration.

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

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

Amid the ongoing threat, Gov. Kim Reynolds held her annual turkey pardon remotely on Tuesday: She pardoned two male turkeys – stars and stripes of an Ellsworth farm – in a ceremony recorded at her office desk.

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

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

The latest detection of bird flu at a commercial turkey facility came Monday in South Dakota, affecting 35,000 birds.