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Will there be a turkey shortage this Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is only three months away. Let's talk turkey.
Overhead view of roasted turkey meat in container against white background
You may want to shop early this year to get the Thanksgiving turkey you want.Cavan Images / Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

The turkey is the star of every traditional Thanksgiving meal, but finding the perfect bird might be a little more difficult than usual this year.

Meat suppliers and distributors are warning that there could be a shortage of smaller turkeys in supermarkets due to labor and production challenges caused by the pandemic.

"Frozen turkeys are the bulk of what is sold at Thanksgiving and are produced all year long. Challenges like labor and transportation that have persisted throughout the pandemic have made it difficult to maintain a normal production flow. The result? Smaller frozen turkeys could be harder to find in stores this November," Butterball spokesperson Christa Leupen told TODAY Food in an email.

Smaller fresh turkeys weighing under 16 pounds will also be harder to come by this holiday season, according to a report from the New York Post.

A broker for Shady Brook Farms, one of the nation’s largest turkey suppliers, warned retailers and distributors in a letter last month that the “status of fresh, whole turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas" isn't promising this year, the New York Post reported.

"The industry continues to struggle with production issues," the broker said in the letter, according to the report.

Fresh turkeys account for 20% of Thanksgiving sales, according to Butterball. The birds are hatched, raised and slaughtered in a narrow window leading up to Thanksgiving.

Leupen said Butterball is working with local retailers across the United States to "make sure there is a range of whole turkey sizes for Thanksgiving." She warned that "factors like labor and transportation can impact fresh turkey production, but Butterball will be working hard to get more fresh turkeys than ever before to grocery stores across the country."

Last year saw a trend toward smaller turkeys on the Thanksgiving table as families held more intimate celebrations because of the pandemic. The Northeast supermarket chain Stew Leonard's told TODAY Food in October 2020 that it was planning to decrease its orders of turkeys over 16 pounds and increase its supply of turkeys under that weight — partly a response to results of a customer survey.

Leupen recommends that people wanting to cook smaller frozen birds for Thanksgiving this year shop early to ensure they get the bird they want.

If not, those who are preparing Thanksgiving dinner for a smaller guest list might be stuck having to defrost a large bird and making room in the refrigerator for all that extra turkey, but it might not be such a bad thing.

"The good news, it is just as easy to cook a larger turkey as it is a smaller turkey," Leupen said. "And a larger turkey means more leftovers that for many people are one of the best parts of the Thanksgiving meal."