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Butterball Is Facing a National Turkey Shortage, and It Doesn’t Know Why

This Nov. 2, 2009 file photo shows a Thanksgiving turkey. The average Turkey Day dinner will cost $49.04, or just 44 cents less in 2013 than it did in 2012. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, turkey producer Butterball notified retailers this week that it will be shipping half as many fresh, large turkeys as expected this year, due to problems in its production process.

Turns out, turkeys on some of the company’s farms are not gaining weight as quickly as they used to. And Butterball doesn’t yet know why.

The shortage only applies to the company’s fresh, never-frozen whole turkeys in sizes 16 pounds and up and Butterball said it expects to be back at full capacity in time for the Christmas holiday. According to the company, the shortage is nationwide. Frozen turkeys have not been affected, nor have any other turkey brands such as Jennie-O, Cargill or Farbest Foods.

In a statement released Thursday, Butterball addressed the shortage:

Butterball and its retail partners have ample supply of frozen whole turkeys of all sizes – small, medium or large. While there may be limited availability on some larger sizes of fresh turkeys, Butterball has shipped 100 percent of customer orders of frozen whole turkeys and products are in distribution across the country. We experienced a decline in weight gains on some of our farms causing a limited availability of large, fresh turkeys. While we are continuing to evaluate all potential causes, we are working to remedy the issue. We sincerely regret the inconvenience that some of our customers have experienced as a result of this issue.

If consumers cannot find a Butterball fresh whole turkey in their desired size, they can purchase a Butterball frozen whole turkey for their Thanksgiving meal. Depending on the size of their turkey, it typically takes between three to five days to thaw; we suggest thawing in a refrigerator for four hours per every pound of turkey.

A shortage of the 16-pound birds is a particular concern because that's the average weight of most Thanksgiving turkeys, according to data provided by the National Turkey Federation.

A fraction of a fraction

But turkey lovers don't need to worry, says Keith Williams, spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation. Only a fraction of the turkeys produced in this country every year are sold as fresh, and of those Butterball is but one producer. The remaining 85% of turkeys are flash-frozen.

"Of that 15% that's fresh you know you've got Butterball, which has a certain amount of that market," he says. "Then you consider that Butterball is talking about fresh turkeys that are only 16 pounds or heavier, so what it really comes down to is anybody who wants a turkey will be able to get it."

The way Williams sees it, Butterball is in effect warning shoppers that are planning to have a large family gathering this Thankgiving that they will probably need to plan on buying a frozen turkey. "And if you get a frozen turkey," he says, "it just takes a little longer to thaw."

A country raised on turkey

Shortage or not, the industry still expects to move a lot of fresh and frozen turkeys this Thanksgiving. Nearly 88% of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving, contributing to the approximately 736 million pounds that are consumed each year on the fall holiday.

According to Butterball, approximately 253 million turkeys are raised in the U.S. each year, with about 41 million of those being produced by Butterball itself. More than 48 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving alone, with Butterball birds accounting for about 25% of that market, or roughly 13.4 million turkeys.