BUSINESS

Turkey industry hoping their birds fly off the shelves again this holiday season

While Thanksgiving sales in 2020 went up, this year there are concerns higher prices might dampen sales

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Things weren’t looking good for the turkey industry around this time last year. Canada was lurching into a second wave of COVID-19 infections, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had gone on national television in late September to announce Thanksgiving 2020 was essentially cancelled.

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“This is not the time to have parties,” he said. “It’s all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas.”

Jean-Michel Laurin, chief executive of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, said the prime minister’s announcement back then scared him.

Turkey farmers and processors traditionally depend on Thanksgiving for more than a third of their sales, while Christmas makes up another 40 or so per cent of total sales. Without those holidays, there would be serious trouble.

“We were very anxious,” Laurin said. “We thought, ‘Are there going to be any turkey sales?’”

But Thanksgiving sales in 2020 actually went up, to the point that some in the industry this year are hoping just to match them.

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The Turkey Farmers of Canada reported a 21 per cent increase in whole bird sales for Thanksgiving 2020 compared to 2019.

And, according to the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, whole bird sales in the fourth quarter of 2020, which covers both Thanksgiving and Christmas, increased by roughly three per cent year over year — a remarkable feat “despite the circumstances we found ourselves in,” Laurin said.

In hindsight, that increase makes sense. Instead of four households getting together to eat one turkey, each household bought their own. Darren Ference, an Alberta turkey farmer who leads the Turkey Farmers of Canada, pointed out this week four smaller birds — at three to five kilograms each — are better than a big one at 11 kilograms.

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Ference is expecting a repeat of last year’s smaller gatherings, and higher sales, judging by the recent spike in infections in Western Canada.

“I’m hoping that we just stay on par with what we were last year,” he said.

But Ference also noted that anticipating consumer demand during the pandemic has been notoriously difficult.

I think now we’re in a much better position for a really good festive season

Jean-Michel Laurin, chief executive, Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council

Laurin, at the processors council, isn’t worried like he was last year. The majority of Canadians are vaccinated, he said, and are likely to get together for the holiday in ways they didn’t in 2020.

“I think now we’re in a much better position for a really good festive season,” he said.

The one concern, though, is that higher prices might dampen sales. Laurin said increases in the cost of feed, such as corn and soybeans, have made it more expensive to produce turkeys.

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“Whether that translates into higher costs at the supermarket, and whether that translates into an impact on consumption, we don’t know yet. We hope it won’t,” he said. “Maybe some retailers will want to price it aggressively because it gets people into the store. You never really know.”

Marie-Claude Bacon, a spokesperson for the Metro Inc. chain of grocery stores, suggested that the increase in retail prices could push some shoppers to consider changing what they serve.

“Turkey is most popular in Ontario for Thanksgiving, but we also expect to sell a lot of prime rib and hams,” she said in an email. “The sales will shift between the three commodities depending upon relative value.”

If it’s anything like previous years, Thanksgiving turkey sales should start in earnest this weekend, reaching their peak next weekend.

Financial Post

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