Consumers have been warned of a “big, big shortage” of British free-range turkeys this Christmas due to an outbreak of bird flu.
The epidemic has already killed half of the birds produced specifically for Christmas in the UK, British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Mr Griffiths said the total UK turkey production for the festive season was around 8.5 to 9 million birds, but around a million had been culled or died from the disease.
Some 1.6 million birds have been culled as of 20 November directly because of bird flu on farms, he told the committee, with around 36% of poultry farms affected by the outbreak.
Mr Griffiths explained: “The usual amount of free range birds grown for Christmas is around 1.2 to 1.3 million. We have seen around 600,000 of those free-range birds being directly affected.”
When asked what that might mean for turkey prices this Christmas, he added: “I don’t know. That’s really a question for retailers. We don’t know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled at this point.”
Poultry farmer Paul Kelly, of Kelly Turkeys, said the outbreak is the worst ever faced in the UK and had been “devastating” for farmers.
He told the committee: “The challenge for a lot of the smaller seasonal producers that produce Christmas poultry is they have their Christmas flock on their farm and when the turkeys are infected they all die within four days.
“To give you an example, we had one farmer with 9,500 (birds). The first infection was on Thursday evening, 20 mortality, and by Monday lunchtime they were all dead.”
Asked if the outbreak would have an impact on prices, he said: “I don’t think UK turkey prices will be going up. I think it will just be a supply issue rather than the prices being hiked. But there will be a big, big shortage of British free range turkeys on the shelves this year.”
Mr Kelly added: “We’re a small business and we’ve lost £1.2 million this year – just turkeys that have died.
“Luckily we’re going to get through to next year but … can we take the risk to grow Christmas poultry based on what we’ve seen this year? We couldn’t. And had I known what I know now we would not have grown the turkeys we did. Looking to next year, I don’t want to put the farm at risk.
“Without a vaccine in place or a compensation scheme that is fit for purpose, I don’t know whether we’d have the confidence to grow Christmas poultry next year.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has assured consumers that while more than one million turkeys have been culled, there “will still be a good supply” this Christmas.
A Defra spokesman said: “We have taken decisive action to tackle this disease and have worked closely with farmers to put infection control measures in place to limit the risk of it spreading further. Outbreak numbers have levelled off in recent weeks suggesting that the recent housing orders are starting to have an impact.
“Sadly, approximately 1.4 million turkeys, some of which are free range, have been culled, but around 11 million turkeys are produced in the UK every year, meaning that there will still be a good supply of Christmas turkeys.
“These outbreaks are understandably very concerning for the impact they have on individual turkey farmers and we are working closely with them to provide the support they need.”
Could turkey prices go up?
Farmers do not set the price of turkeys on supermarket shelves, but the bird flu outbreak - coupled with rising energy prices and costs of animal feed - could have an impact on costs.
Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium told NationalWorld: “Rising inflation is a significant concern for both retailers and their customers. The price of turkeys has been affected by avian flu reducing supply, rising energy prices, and high costs of animal feed.
"Despite these challenges, retailers understand the importance of Christmas and will do everything they can to keep festive meals affordable for everyone. This includes expanding value ranges, keeping the price of essentials down, and introducing discounts for vulnerable groups."