Butterball says it has shortage of large, fresh turkeys

While Butterball, the nation's largest turkey producer, said it was facing a shortage of fresh, large birds weeks before Thanksgiving, Maryland's poultry giant Perdue said it would have no trouble meeting demand.

"Perdue is not experiencing any shortage of turkeys for Thanksgiving," said spokeswoman Julie DeYoung. "Our customers place their turkey orders well in advance of the holiday, and we have sufficient supply to meet those orders."

Butterball said its poultry had trouble gaining weight on some of its farms but did not explain why. The company still has ample supplies of its frozen large varieties, which are birds 16 pounds and heavier.

"We experienced a decline in weight gains on some of our farms causing a limited availability of large, fresh turkeys," Stephanie Llorente, a spokeswoman for Butterball, said in a statement Friday. "While we are continuing to evaluate all potential causes, we are working to remedy the issue. We sincerely regret the inconvenience that some of our customers have experienced as a result of this issue."

Headquartered in Garner, N.C., Butterball produces 1 billion pounds of turkey every year, equal to 20 percent of the nation's production. The ubiquitous brand, known for its blue, gold and yellow label, is a mainstay in American kitchens every Thanksgiving.

Big Y Foods Inc., a New England supermarket chain, said Butterball cut orders for its fresh, large turkeys by 50 percent at stores -- including other chains -- across the country.

But even the fresh Butterball shortage won't be a problem everywhere.

Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant Food, said that the grocer should be able to meet the demand for fresh Butterball turkeys but is prepared to fill in any shortage with other brands.

Fresh turkeys, as opposed to frozen, account for only about 15 percent of the Thanksgiving turkey market, according to Keith Williams of the National Turkey Federation, an industry group.

Williams said that consumers who typically buy large, fresh Butterball turkeys can either switch to a frozen Butterball turkey or buy another brand of fresh turkey.

One area of turkey production where supply doesn't keep up with demand at Thanksgiving is for certain farm-raised turkeys, which the industry calls "pastured" birds.

Catherine Webb, a co-owner of the family-owned Springfield Farm in Sparks, said her farm is no longer taking orders for its pastured Thanksgiving turkeys, and that other raisers of pastured turkeys have filled up their orders this season.

"There's more of a demand for pastured turkeys," Webb said.

Webb said that her turkeys got off to a slow start this year. "They didn't start laying eggs until six weeks later than they usually do," said Webb, who has heard similar reports from other raisers of pastured poultry.

But Webb said she didn't think there was any link to her turkeys' issues and the problems Butterball is experiencing.

Although turkey scarcity alarms have been sounded periodically before Thanksgiving, Williams said there has not been a significant shortage of turkeys in the United States since World War II.

"And that was because of rationing," he added.

"People are going to have turkey," Williams said. "If they want it, they got it."

Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.