My legless Thanksgiving Day turkey is a sad symptom of the supply chain crunch

In early October, Hong Kong was facing an unlikely food crisis: The city seemed to be running short of turkeys.

A potential turkey shortage for Hong Kong—a city renowned for Cantonese dim sum, street grub, and golden egg tarts—normally wouldn’t be an issue. But the turkey shortfall came just as the city was gearing up for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, when the large birds are most in demand, especially among its expat communities.

Morty’s, an American-style deli chain in Hong Kong that offers festive turkey menus during Canadian and American Thanksgiving and Christmas, sold out of its seven-kilogram birds in the first few days of October. It only had a few 20-pound birds left when I called on Oct. 5, six days before Canadian Thanksgiving.

“It has been so crazy this year. It was very difficult to source even 20 turkeys in the market to [ensure] our Thanksgiving could move on,“ says Suki Wong, manager at Morty’s. 

During last year’s holiday season, Hong Kong faced a run on turkeys—one driven by unprecedented demand as the city’s residents were stuck at home, says Jordan Moss, COO of Big Birdy, a chicken joint with locations in the city’s trendy Sai Ying Pun and Wan Chai neighborhoods.

This year, supply and logistical woes are to blame. “Five to six of our U.S. suppliers—who normally push us in August and September for a turkey preorder—didn’t have anything for us this year,” says Moss.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Hong Kong has escaped most delays and shortages of food and consumer goods (save for a brief run on toilet paper) because it depends heavily on nearby mainland China for imports. That sets the city apart from the U.K., which suffered a chicken shortage in August, and the U.S., which is currently in the throes of an “everything shortage.”

But as October wore on and supply chain delays worsened worldwide, Hong Kong restaurants, grocers, and consumers stared down their first real shortage of the pandemic era—that of turkeys from the West—and I, a Hong Kong Canadian, had to settle for a limbless Thanksgiving Day bird.

Five days before Canadian Thanksgiving, I called Smoke & Barrel, an American-style BBQ restaurant in the city. They put me on hold for an agonizing few minutes before letting me know that they had a turkey for me—but one with no legs, nor wings (also known as a turkey crown).

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Worker shortages, supply chain woes

Poultry producers in the U.S. and the U.K., two of Hong Kong’s top poultry suppliers, had warned of a potential holiday turkey crunch as early as this summer.

Butterball, the U.S.’s largest producer of turkey products, told Today in August that “challenges like labor and transportation that have persisted throughout the pandemic have made it difficult to maintain a normal production flow.”

In the U.S., poultry and meat plants and farms are confronting labor shortages made more acute by the pandemic and shrinking rural populations. Tyson, the U.S.’s largest chicken processor, said in June that as much as 20% of its workforce might not turn up on certain days. The worker shortage at American poultry farms is expected to worsen as laborers leave rural areas for more economically prosperous regions and migrant workers pivot to higher paying industries, Bob Ford, executive director of the North Carolina Poultry Federation, told the AP.

Meanwhile, trucking rates have skyrocketed in the U.S. because there aren’t enough drivers. The country is short 80,000 drivers, a record high, the American Trucking Associations told CNN this month. The dearth of truck drivers at a time of high consumer demand and backlogged ports has intensified the supply chain slowdown for goods moving to and from the country.

The U.K.’s poultry producers are likewise struggling with labor shortages because of Brexit and the pandemic.

European laborers left the U.K. during the pandemic, and many have been unable—or unwilling—to return. In August, the British Poultry Council reported over 7,000 vacancies in the sector; that number is similar to years prior, but the jobs are taking longer to fill. The shortage of workers forced chicken producers to cut output by 10%. Restaurant chains like Nando’s and KFC took some chicken items off their menus owing to low supply.

The U.K. is staring down a shortage of 100,000 qualified truck drivers, owing to the same Brexit labor issue, says a recent Road Haulage Association survey. The country introduced 5,000 temporary visas for truck drivers, but only 20 applications out of 300 had been approved as of mid-October.

“The primary issues are with containers and lorries being delayed and canceled [because of] COVID-related disruptions and truck driver shortages,” says Paul Kelly, a turkey farmer at KellyBronze in the U.K.

Production in the U.S. this year slipped to 214 million turkeys raised, a 3% decline from last year’s 220 million, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The volume of turkey meat produced in the U.K. dropped 9.3% in the year ended in September, compared with one year ago, according to U.K. government statistics.

“With the extreme trucking and labor shortages combined, moves [have] become an auction with the highest bidder getting the truck power,” says Richard Shelala, director at New York–based Compass Forwarding, whose company handles food exports to Asia.

Another big factor is demand, not just for turkeys, but for empty shipping containers, too. American purchases of consumer goods—which mostly come from China and other parts of Asia—are soaring, making ocean carriers eager to get shipping containers back to Asia from the U.S. as quickly as possible, says Robert Khachatryan, CEO of California-based Freight Right Global Logistics.

It is faster to send a container back to Asia—to be refilled with consumer goods and sent once more to the U.S.—if it’s empty than if it’s full, Khachatryan says. That’s incentivizing ocean carriers to turn down shipments of exports from the U.S. to China—much of which are agricultural goods, including poultry. Ocean carriers refused at least $1.3 billion of American agricultural exports from July to December last year alone, according to a CNBC analysis. The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), under pressure from the U.S. agricultural sector, investigated freight carriers turning away domestic exports business, which resulted in a February order that prohibited the carriers from “unjust and unreasonable practices related to…receiving, handling, storing, or delivering property.”

The carriers “have been making it very difficult to book exports from the U.S.,” says Khachatryan. It’s gotten so bad, he says, that 71 U.S. agricultural and food trade groups recently penned a letter to the Biden administration demanding that ocean carriers be held accountable to the FMC order. The continued refusal of freight carriers to take American agricultural exports has hurt U.S. exporters’ profitability and their ability to deliver food items to foreign markets on time, the letter said.

“There are just so many hurdles for American exporters now,” says Khachatryan.

Not only birds

The fallout of the supply chain snarl goes beyond turkeys; it’s also slowing shipments of other Western food products to Hong Kong, a city that’s packed with 15,000 restaurants—on par with London, though Hong Kong is only three-fourths London’s size.

U.S. food items are increasingly harder to come by, says Courtney Price, founder of Aussie Meat, a Western meat and produce supplier in Hong Kong. “There are some U.S. products we haven’t got for ages and have long been out of stock, like bone marrow,” she says. “Some American exporters that we used to work with have gone out of business or just lost contact.”

Arron Rhodes, co-owner of Showmen Group, which runs three Western restaurants in Hong Kong, including Smoke & Barrel, says that orders of brussels sprouts from the U.S.—another holiday staple—have also been delayed and more difficult to procure.

As American Thanksgiving and the Christmas season near, the supply chain crunch shows no signs of easing. The market won’t normalize “in the foreseeable future…The backlog is phenomenal, and the problem is multifaceted,” says Shelala. “You can add more containers, but that doesn’t address the trucking shortage. You can add truckers, but it doesn’t address the fact that vessels are completely overbooked. It will take a lot to untie this particular knot.”

Some restaurants and grocers in Hong Kong have now started to receive their turkey shipments after delays and at inevitably higher prices.

Container costs from the U.K. to Hong Kong have shot up 10%, translating to an additional $690 per container, says Kelly, the turkey farmer.

Big Birdy in Hong Kong is paying 20% more for the turkeys it had to source from Australia this year.

Price, the founder of Aussie Meat, who orders turkeys from Utah-based turkey producer Norbest, says she’s likely going to pay double for her turkey order this year since shipping costs have surged dramatically in the past two months.

I ended up celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in mid-October, one week late, with friends from all over the world. The turkey crown from Smoke & Barrel was delicious, smoky, and—surprisingly—not dry. It made for a respectable, if slightly disfigured, centerpiece, and in this era of pandemic shortages, I was thankful for any turkey at all.

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