The U.S. turkey industry’s experiences of the past year — or even the past 24 months — could perhaps best be described as a roller coaster ride that just won’t end. Each time you round the corner, there’s an unexpected new twist or turn: a global pandemic, lingering supply chain disruptions, soaring feed costs and the latest issue affecting turkey production — a widespread outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). The industry is ready to get off this ride!
While supply chain challenges, including labor availability and transportation remain an issue in some circumstances — much like the rest of the food and agriculture sector — the industry and the National Turkey Federation (NTF) are laser-focused on HPAI response. Following reports of HPAI detections in wild birds early this year, the first HPAI case in a commercial turkey flock was identified in early February. As of mid-September, more than 6.3 million turkeys have been lost to HPAI. That loss represents 2.9% of annual U.S. turkey production. Despite fewer losses to date than the turkey industry experienced in 2015, these losses are significant and have been felt throughout the supply chain. The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture reports forecast turkey production and exports down for 2022. However, it is important to note that the industry anticipates there will be plenty of turkey products available for the holiday season,
Enhanced biosecurity measures and implementing lessons learned from the 2015 outbreak have been instrumental in controlling the spread of the virus as much as possible. However, the 2015 outbreak ended in the early summer with the arrival of hot, dry weather. Unfortunately, recent cases and the virus load present in the wild bird population indicate we are experiencing a different situation than has been encountered before. It is clear that we must identify ways to continue reducing the impact of the virus on the turkey industry. Earlier this year, NTF formed an HPAI Task Force to review virus response and identify areas for improvement. The group of industry leaders are also looking at international conversations around the use of vaccines to eliminate an outbreak, enhancing biosecurity and expanding indemnity coverage for growers.
Given HPAI’s impact on the turkey industry, it is critically important that there is robust federal support for HPAI response and research and science to help better understand the virus. As Congress begins consideration of the 2023 Farm Bill, NTF’s top priority will focus on the National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program and opportunities for enhancing animal disease prevention, detection and response. NTF has also voiced support for an expanded wild bird surveillance program across all major flyways, which serves as an early warning indicator of HPAI in the environment.
While HPAI has been a major focal point, the turkey industry also has made positive advances in several priority areas. As USDA moves forward with its comprehensive effort to reduce Salmonella illnesses associated with poultry products, NTF members have remained engaged in this area and continue to seek opportunities for industry to partner on innovative solutions to further improve the safety of our food. Research on treatments for turkey health challenges, such as blackhead disease, has also been a source of encouraging news.
On the marketing front, NTF recently launched the “Tailgate with Turkey” campaign to highlight turkey’s versatility on the grill from the stadium lot to the backyard. For this exciting new campaign, the turkey industry is teaming up with the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network and former Chiefs player Mitchell Schwartz to reach tailgate fans along with a series of big prize giveaways featured on tailgatewithturkey.com.
It's difficult to predict how the rest of 2022 will play out at this point or the magnitude of the HPAI outbreak. However, it is reasonable to assume that recovery from HPAI will take some time, just as we saw in 2015.
Throughout the year, the turkey industry has shown its resilience. The leadership and innovative thinking of turkey producers across the country has been instrumental in mitigating the effects of HPAI. Even as uncertainty remains and the roller coaster keeps twisting, they’ve continued to meet the demand for protein by delivering safe, nutritious products to consumers. That speaks volumes to the state of this industry and is a testament to the strength of the turkey industry moving forward.
Beth Breeding is vice president of communications and marketing at the National Turkey Federation.