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Turkey may be more inflation-proof than the rest of your Thanksgiving meal

November 9, 2021, 7:30 PM UTC

Americans’ annual Thanksgiving meal is expected to cost more this year, thanks to supply chain issues and labor shortages. But prices for the star of the show, the turkey, are going to depend greatly on what type of bird graces the dinner table. 

Economists, farmers, and meat processing executives have been warning for months about higher turkey prices for Thanksgiving.  Credible’s Financial Analyst Daniel Roccato, for example, estimates turkey prices will be up 8% to 9%. Overall, the price of turkeys ranging from eight to 16 pounds climbed 25% from last year, jumping from 81 cents in 2019 to $1.36 per pound in September, according to a recent Wells Fargo analysis of Department of Agricultural data.

And yet the advertised price for whole Thanksgiving turkeys at major national retailers like Aldi, Lidl, Walmart, Target and Trader Joe’s are exactly the same as last year. Whole Foods’ animal-welfare-certified frozen whole turkeys are even selling for less per pound than last year.

So what’s going on?

It’s worth noting that much of the analysis so far, including the recent Wells Fargo report, relies on the relative price of whole bird turkeys at the producer level, not the price the consumer pays at the store. And while there are fewer turkeys available this year, it doesn’t necessarily mean that shoppers are going to pay more per pound for every bird sold. 

It comes down to the type of turkey you’re buying, says Phil Lempert, an analyst and food trends expert known as the Supermarket Guru. “What we are seeing is that the smaller turkeys—12 pounds and less—are both more expensive and in short supply, due to labor shortages,” Lempert says. 

Butterball’s CEO echoed the sentiment, saying that it’s reasonable to expect higher prices per pound on smaller birds because they’re in shorter supply this year. “We don’t expect there to be a shortage overall, but we do see that there are going to be fewer small turkeys this year,” Jay Jandrain told Fox Business

In addition to smaller birds, it will also be hard to find deals on fresh turkeys. The reason? The labor shortage. “When you think about the fresh turkey market, there’s a real premium cut because you have to be so spot on on the timing,” says Michael Swanson, chief agricultural economist at Wells Fargo. The birds have to be ready on a certain day, make it through the processing facility within a specific window, and then are put on the truck for transportation to warehouses and stores.

Businesses are dealing with labor issues throughout that process, but Swanson says trucking is especially problematic. “There’s not a single segment that isn’t struggling with truck availability,” he tells Fortune.

Yet larger, frozen birds, usually referred to as “Toms,” seem to be plentiful and in-store prices are about the same as last year—at least for now. “Some of these larger birds have been in frozen storage, so the pricing isn’t affected by current conditions,” Lempert says. 

Frozen turkeys help everyone from processors to retailers alleviate many of the labor and supply chain issues. “They can harvest those turkeys early, maybe even three months ago, put them in the freezer, and they can move them whenever they want—whenever trucks are ready,” Swanson says. And that shows up in the more stable prices, although that does vary by grocery chain and even among individual stores.

“My hope is that, yes, we’ll see the prices the same as we saw last year, or the year before. And my hope is that we see smaller birds—that they’re not all these 25-pound, frozen turkeys that take three days to defrost in your bathtub,” Lempert says. 

But with so much uncertainty, the best advice Lempert can give shoppers right now is to be prepared to shop early. “If you see it now, buy it now,” he says. 

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