Let’s talk turkey: The price of the bird is skyrocketing. So is almost everything else on the holiday table

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The price of turkey increased last spring as The Ottawa Mission was preparing its annual Easter Monday meal. CEO Peter Tilley didn’t think the price increase would last.

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“We thought it would be a two or three-month blip,” he said. “We had no idea it would continue.”

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As of this month, the price of turkey is up 16 per cent compared to last year. And that’s not all. The price could increase by another four or five per cent and perhaps more by Christmas, said Sylvain Charlebois, who researches food distribution, security and safety at Dalhousie University.

Charlebois is not anticipating turkey shortages. But if you’re looking for a larger bird for the holiday table, it might be challenging, he said.

“I have been encouraging Canadians to buy frozen turkey right now.”

Overall, the price of meat has gone up by 5.5 per cent per cent in the last year, so turkey is a bit of an outlier. But the prices of many of the food commodities on the table for a traditional holiday meal have been rising.

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The price of dairy products increased 10.6 per cent in a year and eggs increased 13.8 per per cent, mainly due to producer price increases from governing boards that have already been approved, according to Statistics Canada.

For holiday bakers, the biggest hit is butter, which is up between 20 and 25 per cent, said Charlebois. The price of flour is up nine to 10 per cent, although Charlebois points out that Loblaws has frozen the prices of its No Name brand food, including No Name flour. The price of other ingredients such as chocolate and nuts have remained about steady.

Food prices have taken a bite out of family budgets. But for organizations that serve dozens of turkeys over the holidays, the hit will be even more significant.

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The Ottawa Mission typically serves 7,000 meals a week, but will be serving about 14,000 Christmas turkey dinners in the week leading up to Dec. 18, including meals delivered to low-income communities on its two food trucks. Filling that order will require 6,500 pounds of turkey — about 650 ten-pound birds — along with 3,200 pounds of potatoes and 1,700 pounds of vegetables, plus gravy and rolls.

“We are taking a kicking with these food prices,” said Tilley.

The Mission gets some of its food in bulk, so the costs are less than they are for households. For The Mission, the cost of buying turkey has increased by almost 11 per cent compared to last year. The cost of potatoes has increased from $22.50 for a 50-pound bag to $26.50. The cost of carrots has dropped slightly from $26.50 for a 50-pound bag to $24.59.

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At the Salvation Army’s Booth Centre, which will be serving over 300 Christmas meals to residents of its emergency shelter, transitional housing and addictions programs, the cost of turkey alone has increased costs by $2,000. But turkey is part of the Christmas tradition, and the Salvation army is committed to putting it in the table, said spokesperson Glenn van Gulik.

“We’re seeing a broader increase in all food prices, and some items we have yet to purchase.”

Inflation is at 6.4 per cent, but inflation in grocery stores prices is at about 11 per cent, said Simon Somogyi, Arrell Chair in the business of food at the University of Guelph.

The price of fresh fruit was up by 8.9 per cent from a year earlier, according the Statistics Canada’s October consumer price index. The price of fresh vegetables was up by 11 per cent.

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Dry or fresh pasta has increased 44.8 per cent between October 2021 and October 2022. Margarine increased by 40.4 per cent, lettuce has jumped 30.2 per cent, rice and rice-based mixes have increased 14.7 per cent while soup has shot up by 18.4 per cent.

Cookies and crackers have increased 14 per cent and bread rolls and buns are up 17 per cent.

“The price of grain has skyrocketed, in part because of the conflict in the Ukraine. The conflict has affected the price of all grains. Meat has been affected by grain prices,” said Somogyi. Fuel prices have also spiked in the past year, affecting the costs of transporting animals and fodder.

Food inflation is a multi-faceted phenomenon. There are 25,000 different products in a supermarket. Each one of them has its own supply and demand story.

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On the turkey front, avian flu is the big variable, said Charlebois. The bird flu hit western Canada hard earlier this year, and now it’s hitting eastern Canada, he said. There was an outbreak of avian influenza last spring in the western provinces, but now it appears that avian flu is moving from west to east.

Eggs, chicken and turkey have all been affected by avian flu, which is destroying a good portion of Canada’s poultry flock, said Charlebois. About 3.7 million birds died or were humanely destroyed on farms across Canada this year, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Ontario is down almost 640,000 birds in domestic poultry flocks.

However, the poultry market usually recovers quickly, unlike beef markets, which may take months or years to recover, said Charlebois. Looking for an alternative to turkey? Consider ham. The price of pork has increased by only five per cent, he said.

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The price of food increased at a slower pace in October compared with September, according to Statistics Canada.

There is other good news on the way. The price of lettuce, particularly romaine, has been high due to a drought in California. But prices for leafy greens will drop in the next few weeks as crops in Mexico and Arizona mature, said Charlebois.

Avocados are 60 per cent cheaper because of boom crops from around the world. Guacamole for the holidays, perhaps?

If there is a bright side to interest rate increases, it’s that they will push up the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar, which will make food imports from the U.S. and Mexico cheaper, said Somogyi. A swift resolution to the conflict in Ukraine will also help.

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On Wednesday, Ottawa Public Health reported on its “nutritious food basket” survey, which looks at the cost of buying a basket of 61 food items, as determined by Health Canada, based on costs at 14 grocery stores across the city in May and June this year.

This is the first time the survey was done in Ottawa since 2019. Comparisons aren’t exactly “apples to apples” — the 2022 list includes more plant-based foods and less meat. However, the contents of the food basket would cost $1,088 a month for an Ottawa family of four, compared to $901 in 2019.

Families and individuals receiving benefits were hit the hardest, according to the Ottawa Public Health survey. A single man living on Ontario Works benefits who rents a bachelor apartment and buys the items in the nutritious food basket would have a deficit of $580 at the end of the month. A family of four depending on Ontario Works benefits would be short $209 at the end of the month. A single person receiving Ontario Disability Support Program benefits would be in the hole by $363 a month.

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Kitchen staff and volunteers at the Ottawa Mission have already prepared, sliced and frozen all of the turkeys it has received so far in vacuum-sealed bags in readiness for Christmas. The Mission is calling on the community to donate frozen turkeys.

Serving 7,000 meals a week was a response to the pandemic. Now, that may last indefinitely, said Tilley.

“It was a pandemic response, but how do you take it away? We have people lined up.”

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