Bird flu hits turkey supply ahead of Thanksgiving

A resurgence of the bird flu is hurting U.S. turkey supply and likely to raise prices ahead of Thanksgiving.

Commercial turkey producers have reported an increasing number of avian influenza outbreaks since mid-July after nearly two months with no cases, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ten outbreaks have been reported since July 14, affecting approximately 617,200 birds.

Outbreaks are unusual at this time of year, as experts believe avian flu does not generally survive hot weather. Cases have been reported in California as recently as Sept. 1, even as the state grapples with a stifling heat wave.

Avian flu does not normally infect humans, but it is deadly to birds and often requires farmers to kill off entire flocks to contain the spread. Approximately 5.4 million turkeys have been killed due to exposure from January to July according to the USDA, equivalent to 2.5% of the turkeys slaughtered for consumption in all of 2021.

The first case of bird flu was identified in January of this year, and the disease has now spread to 39 states. The most recent outbreaks in commercial operations come at an unfortunate time for producers — farmers begin raising turkeys destined for the Thanksgiving table in July.

Hormel Foods, one of the largest turkey processors in the country, expects supply to remain constrained through first quarter of fiscal year 2023 after recently identifying positive cases within its flock. The company expects volumes in the fourth quarter, which includes Thanksgiving, to be off by 30%, CFO Jacinth Smiley said on a Sept. 1 earnings call. 

“Lower industry-wide turkey supplies are expected to keep prices higher near term,” Smiley said.

The last major outbreak of bird flu, in 2015, ended due to a combination of warm weather and an increase in control measures, according to a USDA report. But heat hasn’t seemed to slow the spread of the flu this year.

“Historically, warm weather or heat has really tapped [avian flu] down,” said Hormel President and CEO Jim Snee. “But you’re starting to see cases in California where temperatures are higher.”

Around 50 million birds were affected in the 2015 outbreak, which the USDA called “the worst documented animal health incident in the United States.” This year’s outbreak is already close to those numbers, with 40.8 million birds affected since the beginning of 2022.