A lot of turkeys are going to be eaten next week, in a lot of countries. Although turkey consumption is a relatively new tradition and came up against entrenched national habits in some countries, it’s holding up well. Avian flu has hit demand in some countries, but most have shrugged it off. Chris Lyddon reports.

The industry is concerned. “The Food Standards Agency and the World Health Organisation have confirmed that there is no risk of people catching avian influenza from eating poultry,” the Quality British Turkey website tells visitors on its first page. “British Turkey is completely safe to eat say experts monitoring the avian flu outbreak in Asia and parts of Eastern Europe.”

They’re not the only ones. “Consumers of turkey meat are not at risk of becoming infected with Avian Influenza. To date, there has been no evidence that Avian Influenza can be transmitted through contaminated food,” the Canadian Turkey Marketing Agency says on its website.

It looks as though British enthusiasm for the Christmas turkey is unabated. “Sales are doing very well this year,” Jackie Hollis, spokeswoman for the British Turkey Information Service, tells just-food.

“We haven’t got any actual figures,” she points out. “We won’t have those until after Christmas.” But there was plenty of anecdotal evidence. “Avian flu has made no difference to orders from supermarkets or to sales,” she says. “It’s had no impact at all on turkeys.”

There are signs that any psychological threat to turkey sales from avian flu had already passed. “Because the news stories of avian flu have died down, people aren’t thinking about it,” she says. With no cases reported avian flu wasn’t an issue. “It isn’t here anyway,” she comments.

The number of turkeys UK consumers get through during the festive season has changed little. “We’re going to get through around 10m turkeys,” Hollis says. “It’s pretty static.” 87% of people in the UK eat turkey at Christmas.

However, the way the turkeys are sold has changed. “We are selling a lot more turkey crowns,” she says, referring to the increasingly popular turkeys sold without legs. “There’s a huge move towards that,” she says. “There’s also a move to boned and rolled or all-breast turkeys. They really are gaining ground as a convenient way of buying your turkey.”

One possible reason for the increase in popularity of these types of turkey is the reduction in the size of the average household. “I think it’s because we’re smaller family units,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want their turkey to last more than a couple of days after Christmas and they’re excellent for that.”

Falls reported in France

There are reports of a 25% fall in demand for turkeys in France, but the French Turkey Association CIDEF does not yet have official figures. A spokeswoman for CIDEF tells just-food that it is too early to say how sales were going ahead of the holiday. “You’ll have to wait for the end of the month,” she says. “The orders haven’t gone through yet.” But there has been a fall in sales because of avian flu, “as in every country,” she says.

France is Europe’s biggest turkey producer, according to CIDEF’s own figures. In 2004 it produced 624,000 tonnes of turkey, a rise of 8.5% over the previous ten years.

The average French person consumed 6.2 kg of turkey.

The same set of statistics puts Germany second in the EU with production in 2004 of 360,000 tonnes. The German turkey industry has experienced massive growth, with production up 96.7% over ten years.

German consumers’ reaction to avian flu stories has been more restrained than in some countries, Dr Thomas Janning, of the German turkey industry group, the Verband Deutscher Putenerzeuger, tells just-food.

“There hasn’t been a decisive effect,” he says. “Consumers were concerned, but they’ve reacted by paying closer attention to the origin of the Turkey. They are looking at what country it comes from and how it has been produced.”

There have been falls in sales of turkeys where the origin is not clear, but overall the difference is small. “We’ve heard of falls in demand in France and Italy, but the reaction from German consumers has been much more measured,” he says.

According to a report in the Financial Times Italian turkeys have been flooding onto the British wholesale market as producers there divert supplies

No change in the US

US consumers eat turkeys at Christmas as well as at the traditional Thanksgiving feast in October. It supports a big industry with production of 2.414m tonnes in 2004.

The industry has not been affected by avian flu

“We’ve had no reports from our members of any change in any consumption patterns,” Joel Brandenberger of the National Turkey Federation tells just-food. “And there have been no reports from retailers or buyers of any change.”

The National Turkey Federation this year presented President George Bush with a turkey called “Marshmallow,” an 18 ½-week old, 37-pound tom, the continuation of a 58 year old tradition. The tradition requires that the National Thanksgiving Turkey be pardoned.

“The granting of the turkey pardon is not a responsibility that I take lightly,” said President Bush. The turkey then flew off (first class on United Airlines – they can’t fly on their own) to Disneyland to be grand marshal of the “Disney Thanksgiving Parade.”

Like Britain, US consumption in the holiday season is “pretty steady from year to year,” Brandenberger says. Turkey consumption is still growing steadily, but the dramatic growth rates of the 1980s and ‘90s have faded. Now the growth has steadied with consumption at around 18 pounds per person per year, or some 8.0 kilogrammes.