Fresh turkey for your table may be hard to find in Alberta this Thanksgiving 28 September 2022 10:19 AM: Finding the perfect bird, especially a fresh one, to pair with your cranberry sauce, gravy and biscuits may be difficult this Thanksgiving.

Alberta's turkey supply will be tight and putting one on the table is expected to cost more, as a particularly deadly strain of avian flu continues to infect Alberta's poultry flocks.

With 24 active outbreaks of avian flu across Alberta, and more than 1.2 million birds killed, the virus is putting a strain on the turkey supply chain.

Kyle Iseke, owner of D'Arcy's Meat Market Ltd., has struggled to find the birds he needs.

He considers fresh turkeys one his specialities. But many of his customers will be out of luck. 

'A perfect storm' 

One of the suppliers for Iseke's butcher shops in Edmonton and St. Albert had its flock wiped out last month in an outbreak.

Iseke tried securing another order, but other local farmers are sold out, he said.

"The turkeys that they had earmarked for us and everybody else are not available," he said. "So for them, Thanksgiving is a complete wash."

Together, avian flu, inflation and ongoing supply-chain issues have created a "perfect storm" for small butcher shops, delis and grocery stores across the province, Iseke said. 

The H5N1 subtype of the avian influenza virus continues to spread. Cases are surging in tandem with the fall migration of wild birds, which are natural carriers for the virus. 

Since Sept. 16, new outbreaks have been reported in commercial poultry flocks in Athabasca County, Smoky Lake County, the County of Warner, the Municipal District of Wainwright and the M.D. of Taber.

Avian flu has hit Alberta's poultry industry harder than anywhere else in Canada. Cases have been detected in 44 Alberta flocks. Nearly 30 commercial operations have temporarily closed to contain the spread. 

When a case is detected, federal inspectors order destruction of the entire flock. Production lines are shut down for weeks. Once the slaughter is complete and the barn disinfected, premises remain under quarantine for another 21 days. 

Laurel Winter, who owns Winter's Turkeys in Dalemead, Alta., is a director of the Alberta Turkey Producers, a farmer-run marketing board.

She said it's been a tough year for producers and the fear of additional outbreaks is high during the Thanksgiving rush. The migration of wild birds has increased the threat of new infections, just as many producers prepare for their busiest and most profitable season, Winter said. 

However, suppliers should be able to ship product to Alberta from other provinces, as needed, to meet the demand and fill the gaps in supply, Winter said.

"Because of the nature of the turkey industry, there is the ability to move product," she said. "We have a turkey industry working together to hopefully mitigate any supply issues as we get into fresh, Thanksgiving season.

"I hope that we all can find the turkeys we are looking for our Thanksgiving tables and celebrations this year." 

A man in red shirt and apron holds a frozen turkey.
Kyle Iseke, owner of D’Arcy’s Meat Market, is selling frozen birds for the first time due to a shortage of fresh ones. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

Iseke normally sells around 500 fresh turkeys each Thanksgiving but his shops are now about 300 short.

He's resorted to stocking some frozen turkeys to fill the gap. He's also had to increase prices to reflect increased market costs. He's concerned he might lose customers.

"It's the perception that people will have when they see that sticker shock," he said. 

"That's what's really worrying me right now, that they'll judge the whole store based on that one turkey experience." 

I've got my my ducks in a row, my turkeys in a row.- Corey Meyer

At Acme Meat Market in south Edmonton, Corey Meyer has the inventory he needs to cover the Thanksgiving spike but said the pinch is being felt across the province.

His orders have been placed but he's anxious. With demand so high, producers will likely be unable to fufill any last minute orders, Meyer said. 

"For now, you could say I've got my my ducks in a row, my turkeys in a row," he said.

"I'm pretty lucky that all my birds are ordered and are still scheduled to still come in. Things can still go sideways but so far, so good." 

Supply-chain issues are expected to persist and with the migration of wild birds expected to bring another wave of infection, turkeys will likely remain hard to find through the Christmas season, Meyer said.

He's urging turkey lovers to order or purchase their birds well ahead of any holiday gathering to avoid disappointment.

And if you want a fresh turkey for Christmas dinner, you may want to order one early.

Really early.

Industry insiders are predicting a possible shortage of turkeys and higher prices for Albertans planning a turkey dinner this Thanksgiving. (Bree Fowler/The Associated Press)

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