Joel Brandenberger is president of the National Turkey Federation.
WASHINGTON — Turkey's biggest season is here. If you will forgive those of us who work in Washington for being a little preoccupied with baseball this fall, we'd liken the industry's goals this holiday season to executing the perfect triple-play: reinforcing turkey's dominance of the season, setting the stage for year-round demand growth and ensuring consumers can continue to have total confidence in the quality and safety of the turkey products they purchase.
That's what it's really all about — making sure families have access to safe, nutritious turkey for their table. Members of the National Turkey Federation (NTF) work all year to raise and process the delicious turkey products we love. Anyone in the business knows that there is a whole lineup of elements to balance that go into raising turkeys and bringing a product to consumers.
From food safety and animal health to growing market access for products, NTF and our members have placed an enhanced focus on strategic efforts that will strengthen the industry and make sure your turkey gets to the table at Thanksgiving and for any meal throughout the year.
Food safety in focus
We'll start with the final piece of our proverbial triple play. Food safety always will be the turkey industry's top priority, and an issue that's front and center at NTF. An outbreak of Salmonella Reading linked to raw turkey products, which was identified in July 2018 and formally closed in April, has only bolstered the industry's already robust efforts to better understand food-borne pathogens and enhance programs already in place to control all serotypes of salmonella.
NTF has formed a Salmonella Task Force that is looking at the issue of food safety from every aspect of turkey production, starting on the farm and continuing throughout processing. During this process, NTF has shared information industry-wide and with regulatory partners about techniques and interventions that seem to help reduce harmful bacteria on products, conducting additional studies about the nature of salmonella in processing plants, seeking new research on various interventions and launching a focused communications effort to emphasize consumer food safety education.
While there is no single step that eliminates salmonella, many small actions along the production chain can have an impact. NTF remains committed to putting the lessons learned by industry into action to keep food safety in focus and help consumers stay safe in the kitchen.
"The protein marketplace is evolving and meeting the demands of today's consumers and looks different than in years past."
Proactive approach to turkey health
Part of the balancing act of raising turkeys is ensuring the health of our birds. Healthy flocks are central to a profitable turkey industry both today and into the future. While NTF has long prioritized advancing turkey health and welfare, the industry has placed an enhanced focus on efforts to prevent animal disease and improve flock health.
Working with both the federal government and animal health experts, the turkey industry has seen notable successes in these areas.
The hard lessons of the devastating highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in 2015 reinforced the fact that the first step in protecting flocks from foreign diseases is prevention. The turkey industry has taken numerous, highly effective steps to strengthen the biosecurity of farms and prepare for any future outbreak, but there is a need for a more comprehensive, proactive approach at the federal level to ensure animal agriculture is well-equipped to immediately respond to a crisis.
Additionally, NTF has formed a Turkey Health Task Force to help spur the development of the animal health products the industry will need in the coming decade.
By ensuring the industry's "voice" is heard on Capitol Hill, NTF also played a key role in securing a significant win for our members in the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill's creation of a three-part animal health program, including the new National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program, is part of a larger strategy to prevent animal pests and diseases from entering the United States and proactively reduce the spread and impact of potential disease threats. Implementation of this program is underway, and the turkey industry is ready to work alongside the USDA to ensure growers have access to enhanced tools and resources needed to effectively prevent, identify and respond to animal health threats.
A fresh look
Thanksgiving is by far the largest day of the year for the turkey industry, and that trend will certainly continue in 2019. However, we should not take our place at the center of the holiday plate for granted, even as we focus on expansion throughout the year. As family holiday traditions evolve, and new generations assume the task of preparing the traditional meal, we will work with retailers and other partners to ensure consumers have all the information they need to prepare the perfect family feast.
Beyond securing this important "base," we're paying close attention to movements in the protein marketplace and thinking about how to get more turkey on plates by shifting the way consumers think about serving turkey. Turkey's versatility makes this lean protein ideal for a number of uses in the kitchen beyond the traditional turkey and gravy meal or the turkey sandwich lunchbox staple.
What do consumers want? Convenience is one that has taken top billing recently. One way we're delivering that message to consumers is by working with partners to develop recipes focused on simple, easy preparation. Whether it's a ground turkey taco skillet that's ready in 20 minutes or a bone-in turkey breast cooked in a fraction of the time using the Instant Pot, NTF is taking steps to help make turkey more accessible for new cooks or families on the go. The grill or smoker is another place where turkey is staking its claim.
Through NTF's very own turkey competition barbecue category, Turkey Smoke, turkey made an appearance at 30 plus barbecue competitions in 2019. Seven in 10 Americans own a grill, and more families are grilling year-round. Introducing these consumers to turkey's potential on the grill and creating demand for these products is part of our effort to take a fresh look at turkey and bring balance to sales throughout the year.
The protein marketplace is evolving and meeting the demands of today's consumers and looks different than in years past. Focusing on the health of our flocks, safety of products and new ways to try turkey are just some of the ways we're working to find balance and position the turkey industry for sustained growth. While things may change, you can always count on finding quality turkey products perfect for your table.