Labor woes could add to leftovers: Smaller turkeys could be in short supply in Delaware this Thanksgiving

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NEWARK — For many, the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers. Due to labor shortages and issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year turkey lovers will be eating a lot of sandwiches and casseroles after the table is cleared.

Industry watchers believe that labor shortages allowed more turkeys this year to age and grow before they could be processed and sent to grocery stores, causing a shortage of smaller turkeys.

Economist and University of Delaware Professor Jim Butkiewicz said there will be enough turkeys on supermarket shelves, but size variety will be lacking.

“I’ve seen reports that production is down a little bit, about 6%. But the issue is the size of the turkeys. I’ve seen reports that more larger turkeys will be available and fewer smaller turkeys,” Mr. Butkiewicz said.

“(Turkey growers) don’t have enough workers and meat processing has been hard hit by the pandemic. When turkeys reach a certain size, you process them, kill them and dress them for sale. But since they don’t have enough workers, they can only do so many turkeys at a certain size and the other ones continue to live and continue to grow and get bigger.”

Mr. Butkiewicz said many meat-packing plants were hit with COVID-19 outbreaks that forced them to close or function with a reduced workforce.

“So, turkeys under 16 pounds, the smaller sizes, probably not going to have as many as people would like,” he said.

Festive cooks preparing meals for a large table, though, should be able to find the right bird they are looking for.

“If you want a larger turkey, over 16 pounds, there should be an ample supply.”

Mr. Butkiewicz said the price of turkey may be bigger, too. Citing recent reports of increased grain prices and a reduction in available truck drivers, the cost to produce a Thanksgiving turkey has increased.

“The growers are facing the same issues as everyone else. There is a higher cost for grain. Trucking prices are up. We’re short about 80,000 truck drivers nationwide due to retirements and people just leaving that profession,” he said.

“It’s more expensive to ship things. Fuel costs are up substantially. And labor costs are up for the workers that you do have. So, it’s a combination of things.”

Turkey isn’t the only thing affected by supply chain woes. Cranberries, tablecloths and dinnerware may be more expensive this year or may not be available, especially anything produced overseas.

Dr. Bintong Chen, University of Delaware professor of business administration and supply chain expert, said the supply chain is not an accurate term, it is more like a web.

“The supply chain disruption is a network effect,” Dr. Chen said. “People tend to focus on the local impact of their supply chain disruption, but it’s only one part of the entire chain.”

Dr. Chen explained that the world was starting to see supply chain issues before the COVID-19 global pandemic struck, but shutdowns and illnesses made the problem worse.

A major example of the problem can be seen at the Port of Los Angeles, California. Container ships are anchored out in the water waiting to gain access to the port, but new ships can’t dock until port officials can offload the containers it already has. Transportation officials attribute the problem to a shortage of truck drivers. The containers aren’t moving because there aren’t trucks to move them.

“We see that in the news, the Los Angeles port can’t remove the containers as quickly as you want. But people tend to ignore the chain reaction effect. Especially towards the upstream of the supply chain,” Dr. Chen said.

As a scientist, the professor won’t make a projection on how long supply chain problems will last, but he said according to his research it won’t be over any time soon.

“Due to the disruption at the Port of Los Angeles, OK. You also wasted the shipping capacity of those ships. And those ships could otherwise be shipping other stuff.”

According to Dr. Chen, consumer behavior isn’t helping either. Panic buying, hoarding and buying the same product from different suppliers is taking up space on the supply chain web.