Thanksgiving inflation isn’t just about parade balloons anymore.
The cost of a Thanksgiving dinner has risen 20 percent since 2021, according to the Farm Bureau’s annual survey. As it has done every year for four decades, the farm industry group’s report has proven irresistible to local TV stations and NPR reporters in search for holiday content. It has also been catnip for Republicans, who have jumped into the news to attack the Biden administration:
Thursday’s main dish will be turkey, and turkey is the top item in the Farm Bureau survey, accounting for nearly half of the total meal cost. A 16-pound bird, surveyors report, costs $28.96 this year, up 21 percent from last year. That’s $1.81 per pound!
There’s just one problem: Retail prices of whole frozen turkey last week were just $1 a pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Retail Report of 29,200 supermarkets. So, that’s $16 for a 16-pound bird, not $29. That’s a big enough difference to erase the entire $10.74 price jump between the cost of this year’s Thanksgiving and last year’s that constitutes the main discovery of the Farm Bureau. According to the USDA, the price per pound is 7 cents higher than last year, almost squarely with the broader CPI inflation figure of 7.7 percent, and well below the broader inflation threshold of groceries year-on-year by 12 percent.
What’s going on here? Why does the Farm Bureau think turkey costs twice what the USDA claims? And why don’t reporters cry, um, chickens?
One culprit could be the Farm Bureau’s methodology: The organization relies on 224 surveys conducted by volunteers who buy in-person and online, across all 50 states and Puerto Rico. It’s an “informal survey,” by the group’s own admission, and could be subject to regional and local pricing quirks: Per pound, frozen whole turkey prices vary by a factor of six between the most expensive and cheapest stores.
But a more likely explanation is timing: The Farm Bureau does its surveys in October. This isn’t a very useful data point for whole turkey sales, since most Americans tend to only buy a whole turkey once a year, the week of Thanksgiving or just before. In fact, even just a few hundred US supermarkets, according to the USDA buffer stock frozen whole turkeys in mid-October.
Most years, the timing of the Farm Bureau’s survey doesn’t really matter because of modest price differences between October and November, when more supply hits the market and Thanksgiving promotions take effect: last year, for For example, frozen whole turkey prices fell from $1.15 per pound in the survey period to 93 cents the week before Thanksgiving. Also, the Farm Bureau compares each October to the previous one, so they’re consistent.
But the price changes were more dramatic this year, according to USDA accounting, going from $1.46 in October to $1 last week. That may be because it’s been a tough year for America’s national bird: Avian flu has ravaged turkey farms this year, killing more than 6 million birds, 3 percent of US livestock. In addition to the influence that led to the price increase, said David Anderson, livestock economist at Texas A&M, “turkey producers may be thinking, ‘We need to keep them for Thanksgiving.’ It’s pretty typical: It’s no coincidence that the entire supply of turkeys goes up for Thanksgiving and retail prices go down as a result.
Whatever the reason, actual turkey prices right now are nowhere near what the Farm Bureau claims they are, a fact the group coyly admitted in the press release announcing the survey last week. But those “significantly lower prices” didn’t make it into News at 10.
It’s not that turkeys are inflation-proof: Wholesale prices have risen 20 to 25 percent, says David Ortega, an agricultural economist at the state of Michigan, as producers grapple with bird flu and lower prices. high for feed, fuel and manpower. But food prices are what matters to consumers, and food prices are nowhere near that mark. “The Turks are the classic losing leader,” he said. “That’s the pricing strategy: Retailers can price the turkey below cost to entice customers into the store to buy other items.”
According to the USDA, nearly 9 out of 10 U.S. supermarkets offer a discount on turkey, and there are more sales this year than last year. The theory is that customers choose a supermarket where they will get a deal on the most expensive item, and then buy everything else there too. Like stuffing, which, according to the Farm Bureau, is 69 percent more expensive this year than it was last year.
Or, at least, there was October.