While Americans give thanks for the American way of life over their Thanksgiving turkey, the bird itself is tampering with the traditions of Yankee business profits and the basic tenets of supply, demand and prices.
Since last Thanksgiving, the cost of hatching, growing and slaughtering turkey has dropped sharply. At the same time, the wholesale price of the bird -- the price at which producers sell to supermarkets -- has been increasing. But that doesn't translate into higher prices at the supermarket.
Let's talk turkey. Wholesale turkey prices bear scant relationship to the production costs associated with the bird, poultry executives say. In some years, producers have to sell their flocks for less than it costs to grow them because of lagging demand for the birds.
"What it costs to produce a turkey does not necessarily reflect trends in retail value," said Lew Walts, executive vice president of the National Turkey Federation. "We have no government programs, like other areas of agriculture. We have to slug it out in the marketplace."
But when it comes to turkey, the laws of the marketplace extend only so far. Retailers throw the whole game awry by engaging in what's known in the industry as "loss-leading." In essence, these grocers lose money on every turkey they sell, hoping to make up the loss by selling cranberries, pumpkin pie and all the trimmings.
Because of this marketing technique, Americans will probably pay about the same price to buy their Thanksgiving turkeys this year as they did last holiday, industry executives say. In the Washington area, prices for most frozen and fresh turkeys at supermarkets range from as low as 79 cents per pound to $1.09 per pound, according to advertising placed by local chains.
"Its just really tough to predict prices on the retail level," said Richard Moyers, an official with the Virginia Poultry Association. He said that turkeys are used so often as a loss-leader, the predictions based on supply and demand really don't work out.
"I really don't know why they do it, because Thanksgiving is a turkey-eating day," said Walts. "They are willing to take a loss on the turkeys to bring customers into the stores." He said that in some areas of the country, stores are even discounting turkeys down to 59 cents a pound if customers agree to buy a certain amount of other groceries in their trip to the store.
With the wholesale price of these birds at about 92 to 94 cents-per-pound -- up from about 79 cents last year, according to Department of Agriculture figures -- retailers are taking a financial drubbing for their marketing gimmicks.
"I don't think there's anyone making any money on the price of turkey," said Ernie Moore, local spokesman for Safeway.
But while the retailers make their Thanksgiving profits on goods besides turkeys, turkey producers will be giving special thanks tomorrow for an unusually strong year. After two years of sagging profits in 1982 and 1983, the turkey industry expects a second consecutive banner year in 1985 because the turkey harvest is up and the cost of growing gobblers is down, thanks to lower grain prices.
Profit figures are not available for the entire industry, but Walts said producers enjoyed a $2.25 billion gross dollar volume in 1984, a figure he said should increase this year because of increased production of turkeys. More than 180 million turkeys are expected to be produced this year, a 5 percent increase from 171 million last year, according to Agriculture figures.
If tampering with the law of supply and demand is not enough, turkeys are being used for another slight of hand. Part of the reason demand is rising, producers say, is that companies are increasingly cutting up their turkeys and putting the pieces into other products, such as bologna or hotdogs.
"You take turkey, and with seasoning, you can duplicate just about any flavor you want," said Taylor Grizzard, an official with Wampler-Longacre Inc., a producer in Rockingham County, Va. He acknowledged that companies stick to the basics during holiday time: "It'll be a long time before people go away from the thought of having a whole bird gracing the table at Thanksgiving."