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Published: Thursday, 11/16/2000

Retail prices for turkey again below stores' costs

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

The turkey, dismissed as a candidate for the national bird in Ben Franklin's day, has reigned for decades as the supreme example of grocery stores selling food at less than half of wholesale prices to draw customers.

Wholesale prices are 74 cents a pound for frozen turkeys 16 pounds and up and 81 cents for smaller turkeys.

“There's a real disconnect between wholesale and retail prices at Thanksgiving,” said David Harvey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist assigned to poultry markets.

On the other end of the price range are the specialty turkeys, raised just for the holiday market and sold fresh, by growers such as Albright Turkey Farm, Inc., south of Norwalk. The Huron County farm raises more than 11,000 turkeys for Thanksgiving, which it sells wholesale to about 100 northern Ohio stores.

Several area stores are selling the turkeys for $1.89 a pound, about the same price as last year. Turkey prices, for all cuts, usually average $1 a pound, according to the Agriculture Department.

From cranberries to potatoes, prices for the rest of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner are similar to those in recent years, said Annette Clauson, who follows food prices for the department.

The only differences, she said, will be in which items individual grocery stores decide to feature as specials.

Turkey farmers, however, have had much better years recently than in 1997 and 1998, when almost all but those with specialized holiday and ethnic markets lost money. Low grain prices have helped by reducing feed bills.

Next year is likely to be decent for turkey farms as well, said Lee Schrader, a professor emeritus at Purdue University who follows poultry markets.

Mexico, which buys half of the turkeys that the United States exports, has proven a strong market. It buys mostly dark meat and ground turkey, which often is mixed with pork and made into sausage, Mr. Harvey said.

Whole turkeys in storage in the United States were down 15 per cent from last year - the Agriculture Department estimated 339 million pounds at the beginning of September - but turkey production is up and wholesale prices are almost the same as this time last year.

How long the prices will stand before the industry grows too much and prices fall is hard to predict. Turkey farmers expanded far too much in the late 1980s and early 1990s, predicting that turkey demand was still on the rise. But U.S. turkey consumption, which had increased dramatically between 1975 and 1990, has since leveled off.

U.S. residents ate an average of almost 18 pounds of turkey last year, the second highest in the world behind Israel's almost 29 pounds, according to the Agriculture Department.

The turkey is considered distinctively American. Ben Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official U.S. bird, was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen instead and wrote to his daughter:

“The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”



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