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'Very stressful': COVID-19 surge slices U.S. demand for big Thanksgiving turkeys

CHICAGO (Reuters) - All summer, Greg Gunthorp slaughtered and froze 15- to 24-pound turkeys on his northeastern Indiana farm for Thanksgiving sales to retailers, restaurants and families across the Midwest.

FILE PHOTO: Raw turkeys are divided up ahead of slicing and some to be distributed ahead of Thanksgiving and amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in LaGrange, Indiana, Michigan, U.S., November 20, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin/File Photo

But as surging COVID-19 cases prompted U.S. cities and states to urge Americans to stay home just weeks before the holiday, customers swapped out orders for whole birds for smaller turkey breasts.

As a last-minute shift toward small-scale celebrations upends demand for the star of Thanksgiving tables, turkey producers and retailers are scrambling to fill orders for lightweight birds and partial cuts.

“It was very stressful,” Gunthorp said. “It cut our numbers on being able to fill customer sizes that they wanted for turkeys - way too short.”

Gunthorp raised and sold nearly 7,000 pasture-raised turkeys this year, up 75% from a year ago. Restaurants and meat shops in major Midwestern cities, his primary clients, cut orders by 10% to 20%, but Gunthorp has made up the difference by partnering with online retailers, shipping turkeys as far away as Los Angeles.

Suppliers need to be nimble as about half of Americans plan to alter or skip traditional festivities due to local health advisories against big gatherings, according to market research firm Nielson. About 70% are planning a Thanksgiving with fewer than six people, compared with 48% last year.

Demand for smaller birds will trim turkey production to 1.445 billion pounds in the last quarter, down five million pounds from previous expectations, according to a Nov. 17 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We have seen our supply chain adjust to market disruptions and shifting consumer needs,” said Beth Breeding, spokeswoman for the industry group National Turkey Federation. “Like the rest of the country, it has been a challenging year for turkey production.”

While best known for beef, Nebraska-based Omaha Steaks this year offered 3-pound turkey breasts for the first time to cater to smaller Thanksgiving gatherings, said Nate Rempe, president and chief operating officer. The pre-cooked product sold out online, as some consumers are avoiding grocery stores.

Omaha Steaks also sold out of 10-pound turkeys earlier than usual, Rempe said.

“The number of individual Thanksgiving meals being prepared ... is going to be much higher because of the separation of gatherings,” he said.

Butterball, the largest U.S. producer of turkey products, shipped 1,900 truckloads of whole turkeys to grocers in the past two weeks, said Al Jansen, executive vice president of marketing and sales. Many major chains booked orders in the first quarter before the coronavirus outbreak, he added.

Retailers have slashed whole-turkey prices by about 7% to an average of $1.21 per pound, the lowest since 2010, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. That cuts the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people by 4% to $46.90, Farm Bureau said.

The decline is welcome news for the nearly 24 million households facing empty cupboards due to COVID-19-related job losses. Food insecurity has nearly tripled since the pandemic began, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. [nL1N2HB17U]

“Thanksgiving will not be a holiday that all Americans can enjoy this year,” said Joseph Llobrera, research director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Alarming levels of food hardship will last through the holidays and beyond unless policymakers immediately provide robust COVID relief.”

Some Americans who had relied on others to cook on Thanksgiving are ordering part or all of their meals from restaurants for the first time. Others simply do not want the hassle of preparing a feast for just a few guests.

“Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year, and we know there’s a lot of cooking fatigue out there right now,” said Tracy Hostetler, a vice president for Perdue Farms. The company launched turkey “ThanksNuggets” as an alternative to traditional turkey dinners.

In Houston, independent marketing consultant Anh Nguyen, 50, will dine with about 10 relatives on a smoked turkey from a local restaurant. Normally, three times as many of her family members gather to gobble up two 20-pound turkeys cooked at home.

“It’s a little weird,” said Nguyen. “Thanksgiving has been historically just one of the holidays where everybody is together.”

Reporting by Christopher Walljasper and Tom Polansek; Editing by Richard Chang

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