WASHINGTON — As we seek to discern what the future holds for the turkey industry, there are only two safe bets. The first is that some issues that feel as though they have been around for decades (and maybe they have) will continue to present challenges. The other is that there will be at least one major surprise that was very difficult to predict. With those caveats, here are some of the challenges the industry is likely to be facing in 2024.
To a certain extent, our first issue — highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — falls into both categories.
When the initial cases appeared in February 2022, there was reason to hope the initial detections might be isolated incidents. Nobody fully anticipated how long the outbreak would last or how widespread it would be. Ultimately, we lost almost 10 million turkeys to the disease in 2022.
Similarly, there was reason for optimism when the cases appeared to play out by this past spring, but October provided a stark reminder that the virus remains a major threat. The industry lost almost a million more birds, and there have been additional detections in November.
Nonetheless, the industry has made significant strides in its fight against the disease. Taking lessons learned from the 2015 outbreak, growers have implemented top-notch biosecurity measures and worked with USDA and government officials to respond efficiently to confirmed cases of HPAI. As a result, farm-to-farm transmissions have been reduced dramatically compared to 2015.
Because the last 45 days have reminded us that we will be fighting this disease for some time to come, additional weapons will be needed. NTF and its members continue to support USDA’s commitment to explore a potential HPAI vaccination strategy that will not disrupt trade.
It is critical the U.S. examines new ways to limit the number of birds infected with HPAI. The new strains associated with the current outbreak have had a significant impact on the number of birds affected and have presented unforeseen challenges in curtailing the virus. Developing a viable, non-disruptive vaccine strategy will take time and considerable collaboration and effort from government agencies, our trading partners and the larger poultry industry. NTF looks forward to being a part of that effort.
NTF also recognizes that no single weapon will control the HPAI threat, and we also are committed to helping develop new technologies to further improve the safety and biosecurity of commercial flocks in addition to monitoring viral loads in the wild bird population. NTF has worked closely with USDA to ensure the resources are available to continue surveilling all major flyways and looks forward to continuing to do so. This is an early warning system to help prepare the industry for emerging virus threats, and NTF appreciates USDA’s commitment to the program.
Salmonella likewise will continue to challenge the industry, and NTF members have put in a great deal of effort in continuing the federation’s extensive work and research related to food safety and better understanding Salmonella. As a result of this industrywide focus, NTF members are well-positioned to work with USDA on its initiative to reduce Salmonella illnesses.
NTF has provided feedback on proposed changes in the way industry and government addresses Salmonella, including FSIS’ Proposed Regulatory Framework to Reduce Salmonella Illnesses Attributable to Poultry and the FSIS proposal to declare as adulterated not-ready-to-eat (NRTE) braded stuffed chicken products that contain Salmonella at levels of 1 colony forming unit (CFU) per gram. Our goal is to ensure policy is based on science-driven principles. NTF will continue to identify scientific and technological innovations that will help us reduce naturally occurring pathogens in turkey products as these various policies take shape.
The mission to reach markets in India, Caribbean countries and Latin America remains top of mind heading into 2024. The U.S. turkey industry celebrated a major win in September when India announced it was eliminating the retaliatory tariff on U.S. frozen whole turkeys and frozen turkey parts and reducing the basic tariff on those products from 30 percent to 5 percent.
Challenges remain in all these markets, but NTF looks forward to further expanding its efforts to provide a healthy, lean protein option to consumers abroad by cultivating valuable key trade relationships, updating existing trade agreements and navigating existing sanctions.
Turkey growers and processors enjoyed a significant victory to round out 2023 when USDA published its final rule on “Transparency in Poultry Grower Contracting and Tournaments.” NTF, for more than two decades, has maintained a policy of supporting proposals that all parties to a production contract fully understand the agreement they are entering.
What concerned us about USDA’s 2022 transparency proposal was that it was based almost exclusively on research and study of the chicken industry. NTF in its comments made a forceful argument that a one-size-fits all approach to regulating contracts did not make sense for the poultry industry as there are significant differences in chicken and turkey production and contracting.
USDA ultimately agreed, and the final rule announced in November applied only to broiler chicken contracts. USDA ultimately could revisit contract transparency in the turkey industry, but if it does, the department will base a proposed rule on research into turkey production and contracts, and growers and processors will have to opportunity to comments on a proposal geared specifically to their needs and challenges.
As noted at the outset, always bet on at least one surprise in the year ahead. If we could read the future well enough to know for sure what it is, well, we might be in a different line of work. But, we know the industry is well positioned for the challenges we know are ahead: to continue the fight against HPAI, to work for proactive, science-based food safety solutions, to open new markets for turkey at home and around the world and to fight for policies that do not needlessly make turkey production more difficult.
And, given this industry’s track record, it ultimately will be able to meet whatever surprises may come its way.
Joel Brandenberger is president of the National Turkey Federation with headquarters in Washington, D.C.