Monday, October 2, 2023

Turkey industry shows resilience in face of challenges

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By Joel Brandenberger

Special to Poultry Times

WASHINGTON — Like virtually every other business in the U.S., the turkey industry has had to adapt to the operational realities and shifting consumer demands presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every segment of the industry was significantly affected, in most cases dealing with challenges barely imagined even a year earlier.

So, why would we expect Thanksgiving to be any different? Welcome to the first pandemic holiday season in almost everyone’s lifetime.

While so many things may look different, the industry’s commitment to fulfilling our essential mission — delivering safe, healthy protein for consumers — remains the same. As they have throughout the year, families most certainly need food. And, most families have reasons to be thankful, even amidst so much hardship and tragedy.

The turkey industry’s response to the challenges it has faced in 2020 underscored its resiliency, creativity and focus on excellence. National Turkey Federation (NTF) members have had to innovate on an almost continual basis to protect workers on the job and to keep feed moving to farms, turkeys to processing and finished product to consumers, all while continuing to adhere to new and existing government regulations and industry best practices. They’ve met surging retail demand for protein and they have worked to keep their foodservice partners afloat during an incredibly difficult time for restaurants.

The industry’s resilience has been impressive, and it provides a glimpse into where we go next.

Responding to the challenges

From our current vantage point, it may be a little hard to remember just how chaotic March and April were. NTF, its members, customers and the government all were trying to find the way to move forward safely as the pandemic unfolded. Almost every day brought a new challenge, and even though we write this in the midst of a very contentious election season, the cooperation between the Administration, Congress and the regulated (at least on matters of food production) in those early days would have made the founders proud.

A series of regulatory actions taken at the outset of the pandemic helped ensure turkey production was considered an essential industry, allow for uninterrupted transportation of feed, animals and finished products and redirect foodservice products to retail where possible. NTF also worked with federal regulators to be certain plants had the clear guidelines and standards needed to remain operational while protecting workers. And, while we welcomed President Trump’s April decision to issue an executive order authorizing use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) in order to keep plants open, the reality is the DPA never had to be formally invoked. Its mere presence fostered a new spirit of cooperation between federal, state and local health officials.

In September, USDA’s second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 2) extended eligibility for federal assistance to independent turkey producers. The expansion of this program to include turkey was in response to outreach efforts across the industry to highlight the challenges COVID-19 market disruptions and subsequent foodservice losses have presented for independent turkey producers.

NTF continues to work with lawmakers and USDA to see the turkey industry is compensated for its COVID-related losses in the same manner as other industries.

Even with just a few weeks left in the year, no one knows how the rest of 2020 will play out. But it is clear that disruptions to foodservice have been significant and will continue to have an impact on the turkey industry as we look towards 2021.

Some projections put overall turkey foodservice losses at more than 20 percent, and it will take time to build that business up again as the economy reopens. While we’ve seen consistent gains at retail, with ground turkey performing especially well, growth at the supermarket cannot fully offset the losses at foodservice

NTF continues to track the situation closely, but the impacts will not be fully evident until the end of the year. However, there have been losses in foodservice sales, and they could continue for a while longer.

Turkey’s Big Day

As noted earlier, Thanksgiving 2020 is undoubtedly going to look different. However, while holiday celebrations may be smaller, the industry is certain turkey will remain the table’s centerpiece.

NTF anticipates that demand for turkey will remain strong this holiday season. Some projections indicate that, though individually smaller, there may be more celebrations overall. Whole turkeys are the main product that will be featured and purchased during the holiday season, but with celebrations shifting, NTF is also making sure to highlight the versatility of our members’ products for what might be smaller gatherings and engage new home cooks with Thanksgiving meal preparations.

Keeping the unique circumstances of this holiday season in mind, NTF has developed numerous resources to help consumers plan their Thanksgiving meal(s). NTF’s Thanksgiving 101 campaign offers simple tips to help first-timers and veteran cooks alike prepare a successful meal. These resources cover everything from a small-scale meal featuring a bone-in breast or turkey drumsticks to how to roast a whole turkey, make a basic gravy or harness the power of leftovers.

We have also included a “Zoomsgiving” kit with creative backgrounds and games for families and friend groups who choose to celebrate virtually. For those thinking outside the oven, NTF’s Turkey Smoke barbecue outreach program has compiled videos on how to smoke a turkey for a holiday meal over the coals.

What comes next

Despite uncertainty, opportunities will emerge from 2020. The industry has moved quickly to enhance worker safety and plant operations where possible, something that will serve to benefit the industry moving forward.

Gains in retail turkey sales represent an opportunity to reinforce shopping and cooking habits, such as increased turkey use, that were developed over the past few months as consumers continue to prepare more meals at home.

NTF has also continued the federation’s important work in animal health and food safety. NTF’s Turkey Health Task Force has advanced proactive efforts to identify top animal health concerns, accelerate the development of animal health products that meet the needs of the industry and encourage research initiatives.

On the food safety front, NTF is actively working with our membership to advance enhanced industry-wide efforts geared toward reducing salmonella throughout the turkey supply chain. This includes a targeted focus on Salmonella data collection and monitoring, research opportunities and strategy development to further improve the microbial safety of turkey products. Both are vital components for a successful industry in the coming year.

Taking the lessons learned from 2020 and finding balance will help the turkey industry prepare for future situations and move forward successfully.

NTF is grateful for the hard work and dedication of the men and women on the farm, in the plant and everywhere in between who play a role in the production, processing and delivery of turkey products. It’s because of them that we know the state of the industry remains resilient in this crisis.

Joel Brandenberger is president of the National Turkey Federation.

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