Avian flu has not dampened British appetites and enthusiasm for roast turkey at Christmas, even if it has tightened supplies in some sections of the market. The feared consumer boycott following outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) virus strain at Bernard Matthews and Redgrave poultry turkey farms has not materialised.

Indeed the top-end supermarket, Marks & Spencer, announced the exact opposite with a massive 40% year-on-year increase in organic turkey sales. This follows the doubling of total UK organic turkey sales at Christmas 2006 compared with a year earlier, as UK consumers are prepared to pay extra for top-quality traceable produce.

Waitrose, another upmarket UK retail chain, announced it had no organic turkeys for sale this Christmas after H5N1 wiped out its entire supply at Redgrave Poultry’s farms in November 2007. The 18,000 organic turkeys earmarked for Waitrose and expected to retail at UK£40 (US$80) each were among 98,000 birds culled across six Redgrave units.

During the outbreak, Waitrose told The Scotsman that it was not concerned about its overall Christmas turkey supplies in the wake of the extended culling [precautionary slaughter] on additional farms near the H5N1 index outbreak at Redgrave Park Farm.

According to Anna Bassett, a poultry specialist with the Soil Association, the cancellation will give a boost to independent organic farmers. The Soil Association advises British farmers about organic methods.

Forty pounds (£40) is a hefty price to pay, considering you can still buy a conventionally reared turkey (probably imported) for under UK£10 (US$20) in British retailers. Compare this with the reported price of UK£100 for a 6-8kg free-range, organic bird from Copas Traditional Turkeys!

These birds have been called the ‘Rolls Royce’ turkeys of the UK market and are fed organic, additive-free cereals rich in oats in the open-air luxury of cherry orchards and maize fields. They are slaughtered at 25 weeks compared to an average 12 weeks, and humanely on-farm, hand-plucked and hung for up to 14 days. “They are worth every penny,” claims owner Tom Copas. He sells 50,000 birds each year.

News of the UK£100 (US$200) bird reached the USA, natural home of the turkey. Bloomberg reported on the lucrative experience of an organic farm in Berkshire a rural county to the west of London. The 1800 turkeys on Sheepdrove Farm in Britain's Berkshire Downs (Hills) spent the summer and autumn feasting on grubs and wheat and roaming through meadows, according to the report. Earlier this month, these Norfolk Bronze birds with dark plumes and scarlet beaks were slaughtered, hand-plucked and hung for 14 days on the 1000-hectare organic farm.

Organic farms like Sheepgrove are flourishing, claims the report with British Retail Consortium. It predicts sales of organic turkeys rising by 46% compared with just 7% for total turkey sales. Prices are pushing up too, fuelled by feed price inflation and the perceived shortage of birds due to culls following the November outbreak of HPAI in Norfolk and Suffolk. 

Christmas prices for the best organic turkeys like those at Sheepgrove are up by 38%, with good sized birds now fetching £100 ($200) for the first time. Wheat traded on the Chicago market broke through the US$10 a bushel barrier for the first time on 17 December 2007, following a remorseless rise over the last year, which saw feed wheat prices double due to drought-induced reductions in output in big producer nations like Canada and Australia.

‘Rolls Royce’ turkey’s apart, an earlier scare that most UK organic Christmas turkeys would be retailing at UK£100 each was unfounded. A survey by This is Money found the most expensive on sale in supermarkets to be Marks & Spencer organic turkey (5.5kg) at around UK£70 each. Consumers on a tight budget could feed the same number of people with a 4kg frozen turkey from ASDA for UK7.

Any Christmas shortage could signal a boost for the big all-year-round producers like Bernard Matthews, many of whose turkeys were slaughtered, processed and frozen several months ago ready for the Christmas market. After what was by any measure a bad start for Bernard Matthews, the UK’s largest turkey producer ended the year by investing UK£500,000 in a national television campaign and a further UK£100,000 for web advertising aimed specifically at women between 25 and 44.

Bernard Matthews’ Marketing Director, Matthew Pullen, told Poultry World, “Christmas isn’t Christmas without a turkey. We have been at the heart of the Christmas dinner for the past 50 years, so it’s essential for us to put major support behind our British hero, the Golden Norfolk, and to highlight our turkey know-how during the festive season.”

Will supermarkets save the day?  

The big question mark for producers, suppliers and retailers is will UK consumers, unable to purchase a fresh organically reared turkey, be prepared to settle for anything else in the turkey range?

Waitrose told the UK press that it would not risk lowering standards by switching to other suppliers for its organic turkeys and does not seem to think so, saying it was cancelling 1300 advance orders for its organic turkeys. Customers were offered a free-range bird and a £10 gift voucher. “We are working with our other suppliers and are confident that we will have enough high quality, free-range and ‘Select Farm’ turkeys to meet customer demand. Waitrose sources all its turkeys from known farms and dedicated suppliers and we are not prepared to buy on the open market and compromise those principles to make up this shortfall,”, said a spokesman for the company.

Continuing its ongoing surge in organic turkey sales, Marks & Spencer expects receipts to break through the UK£1 million barrier for the first time ever this year, confident in the knowledge that its suppliers were unaffected by HPAI. Steven Esom, director of food at Marks & Spencer, said, “Far from suffering a shortage, we upped our order for organic turkeys this year, knowing customers were increasingly wanting an organic bird as the centrepiece of their Christmas dinner.” Marks & Spencer claim all their turkeys this year are exclusively organic or free-range birds. 

Both Waitrose and Marks & Spencer supermarket chains are small by UK standards so the giants like Tesco and ASDA will probably decide the eventual outcome as far as overall supply is concerned. Supermarket chains Tesco, Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer and Somerfield insist their supplies of organic turkeys are secure. ASDA told Poultry World that its poultry sales were strong. “Our customers are not migrating to other meats. However the only issue has been duck sales”, said an ASDA spokesman.

Andrew Saunders, food analyst with stockbroker Panmure Gordon, said all this could have a knock-on effect. “It's possible that shoppers will go elsewhere if Waitrose can't sell them the goods, which could lead to shortages,” he said. “On top of the higher food prices we have seen in the last few months, the price of turkeys could move up, reflecting the fact that there are fewer birds around following the culls.”

Jeremy Blackburn, the executive officer of the British Poultry Council commented, “Hopefully, the shortfall in organic turkeys from Waitrose will be made up by the rest of the sector, and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said the 96,000 birds culled in East Anglia during the November 2007 H5N1 outbreak represented a small proportion of total UK poultry population.”

Scare stories about turkey shortages apart, no-one really believes that UK supermarkets like Tesco with its global reach will leave consumers in the lurch and without a turkey of choice.

Turkeys have certainly come a long way in the UK since introduction from their native North American home. Turkeys first arrived in Britain in the 16th century imported by William Strickland from Yorkshire who acquired six birds from North American Indian traders. Turkey eating at Christmas began in the 19th century when it started to replace goose and now-exotic poultry dishes like swan and peacock. Over Christmas 2006, British ‘gobbled up’ ten million turkeys.