Inflation on Thanksgiving isn’t just for parade balloons anymore.
According to the Farm Bureau’s annual survey, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner is up 20 percent from 2021. As it has every year for four decades, the agriculture industry group’s report has proven irresistible to local television stations and NPR reporters seeking holiday content. It’s also been catnip for Republicans, who have pounced on the news to attack the Biden administration:
The main course on Thursday will be turkey, and turkey is the headline item in the Farm Bureau survey, accounting for almost half the total cost of the meal. A 16-pound bird, surveyors report, is going for $28.96 this year, up 21 percent from last year. That’s $1.81 per pound!
There’s just one problem: Retail whole frozen turkey prices were at just $1 a pound last week, 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. It’s a big enough difference to erase the entire $10.74 price jump between the cost of this year’s Thanksgiving and last’s that constitutes the Farm Bureau’s main finding. According to the USDA, the price per pound is 7 cents higher than last year—almost perfectly in line with the broader CPI inflation figure of 7.7 percent—and a good deal below the broader year-over-year grocery inflation mark of 12 percent.
What’s going on here? Why does the Farm Bureau think turkey costs twice as much as the USDA says it does? And why don’t journalists cry, um, fowl?
One culprit might be the Farm Bureau’s methodology—the organization relies on 224 surveys conducted by volunteers shopping in person and online, in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. It’s an “informal survey,” by the group’s own admission, and might be subject to regional and local pricing quirks—per pound, whole frozen turkey prices vary by a factor of six between the most expensive stores and the cheapest ones.
But a more likely explanation is timing: The Farm Bureau does its surveys in October. That’s not a very useful data point for whole turkey sales, since most Americans tend to buy a whole turkey just once a year—the week of Thanksgiving or just before. In fact, according to the USDA, just a few hundred U.S. supermarkets even stock whole frozen turkeys in mid-October.
Most years, the Farm Bureau’s survey timing doesn’t matter so much because of modest price differences between October and November, when more supply hits the market and Thanksgiving promos kick into effect: Last year, for example, whole frozen hen turkey prices fell from $1.15 per pound in the survey period to 93 cents the week before Thanksgiving. Moreover, the Farm Bureau is comparing each October with the previous so they’re consistent.
But this year, the price changes have been more dramatic, by the USDA’s accounting, falling from $1.46 in October to $1 last week. That may be because it’s been a hard year for America’s also-ran national bird: Avian flu has devastated turkey flocks this year, killing more than 6 million birds, 3 percent of the U.S. stock. In addition to the flu driving price increases, says David Anderson, a livestock economist at Texas A&M, “turkey producers may be thinking, ‘We need to hold these for Thanksgiving.’ ” That’s pretty typical: It’s not a coincidence that whole turkey supply ramps up for Thanksgiving, and retail prices fall accordingly.
Whatever the reason, actual turkey prices right now are nowhere near what the Farm Bureau says they are—a fact the group sheepishly admitted in the press release announcing the survey last week. But those “sharply lower prices” didn’t make it into News at 10.
It’s not like turkeys are inflation-proof: Wholesale prices are up 20 to 25 percent, says David Ortega, an agricultural economist at Michigan State, as producers reckon with bird flu and higher prices for feed, fuel, and labor. But grocery pricing is what matters to consumers, and grocery pricing is nowhere near that mark. “Turkeys are the classic loss leader,” he says. “That’s pricing strategy—retailers can set the price of turkey below cost to draw customers into the store to purchase other items.”
According to the USDA, almost 9 in 10 U.S. supermarkets are offering a sale on turkey—and there are more sales this year than last. The theory is, customers choose a supermarket where they’ll get a deal on the big-ticket item—and then they buy everything else there, too. Like stuffing, which, according to the Farm Bureau, is 69 percent more expensive this year than last.
Or, at least, it was in October.