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Why turkey prices are at record highs for this Thanksgiving Day

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Turkey is selling at record prices this year. The reasons read like an account of biblical plagues, pestilence, drought, war. But it's the grocers that will be eating a lot of the increase in turkey prices. That's because, as Frank Morris with member station KCUR reports turkey is the last thing stores want to be expensive at Thanksgiving.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: If you're a turkey on a farm in the United States, your days are numbered.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

MORRIS: But the thousand white birds fanned out on this green, rolling pasture in central Missouri are kind of lucky they made it this far.

NICK HEISLER: And, you know, this has been a really tough year for turkeys, probably one of the toughest, as far as keeping a turkey healthy and also alive.

MORRIS: Nick Heisler (ph) works for Buttonwood Farm, a regional turkey and chicken producer. He says avian flu has taken out more than 6 million turkeys this year. And he says feeding these survivors costs almost twice as much as last year. Drought in the U.S. and war in Ukraine have pushed up grain prices. Diesel fuel is also about double. And it turns out producing turkeys takes a lot of diesel.

HEISLER: Hauling birds. Hauling grain. Taking birds to the processor.

MORRIS: So turkeys aren't quite as plentiful. And everything about producing them costs more, which, of course, shows up in the price of turkey. Tom Windish, an executive at Cargill, runs the country's third-largest turkey-growing and processing operation.

TOM WINDISH: Yeah, my turkey team (laughter).

MORRIS: Windish says the price of turkey breast has more than doubled this year. Turkey breast from tom turkeys, of course, sells all year. But smaller hens, the ones mostly turned into whole frozen turkeys, live and die for just one day, Thanksgiving.

WINDISH: And we work all year to get the packaging and the production time put away for this mass exodus out of our cold storages that is happening right now.

MORRIS: Windish says he expects those birds hitting grocery store freezers now to sell fast, despite costing at least 17% more than last year. But at this Sun Fresh grocery store in Kansas City, shoppers are weighing their options.

MARVEL WILSON: We're going to have something, but it won't be turkey (laughter).

MORRIS: Marvel Wilson (ph) leans heavily on a half-full cart, eyeing frozen birds, and says turkey is too high.

WILSON: We're already paying more for your groceries.

MORRIS: But the grocery store is one link in the turkey supply chain where the price doesn't rise, at least not much. Frozen birds at this store costs shoppers 2 cents a pound more than they do the store, according to the store manager, Elexa Pierson. But even she considered skipping turkey this year.

ELEXA PIERSON: And I was almost thinking to myself, like, is it worth it to get a turkey, I mean, just for, like, a bird? Like, I don't know. But, hey, I mean, I'm going to do it because it's the Thanksgiving meal, but a bird.

MORRIS: The bird isn't supposed to give you pause. It's supposed to get you into the store. Emily Moquin, food and beverage analyst at Morning Consult, says turkey is the classic loss leader for grocers.

EMILY MOQUIN: You know, they might not make any margin or profit on selling a turkey. But if they get a shopper to come buy the rest of their feast items and ingredients there, then it might still be, you know, worth it.

MORRIS: Moquin says that most shoppers she's surveyed say turkey is non-negotiable. Most expect to get their bird on sale or switch to a store brand. A lot of them are just buying less food in general. But come Thanksgiving, most plan to be eating turkey even if they have to skimp on the stuffing.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "STUFFY TURKEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.