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Gobble It All Up

November 21, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

It used to be that for 11 months of the year, turkey was largely forgotten, fading into the background after the holidays, waiting another year to shine again.

But all those turkey sandwiches, turkey burgers, turkey sausages and roast turkey breasts are adding up. Per-capita turkey consumption in the United States nearly tripled between 1960 and 1994 (the last year for which statistics are available) to almost 18 pounds.

The month from Thanksgiving to Christmas is still the only time when turkey takes on iconic significance, and that hasn't changed a bit--the amount of turkey eaten in the November-December 1994 holiday period increased 40% since 1960 to 4.5 pounds per person. But consider that in 1970, the final holiday quarter of the year accounted for half of the turkeys eaten, while this year that share will fall to about one-third.

It's the rest of the year that make the difference. From January through October 1994, Americans averaged more than 13 pounds of turkey per person, almost four times the amount in 1960.

"A lot of that was just the growth in luncheon meat in the 1980s," said Milton Madison, an agricultural economist for the Department of Agriculture. "We basically doubled turkey consumption just between 1980 and 1990."

There's even better news for turkey growers, though. What was once a fairly minor part of the poultry business has become a billion-dollar industry--exporting its products all over the world.

The big boom in exports came with the fall of the Iron Curtain. From 1991 to 1993, turkey exports nearly tripled. Today, exports are more than 10 times what they were in 1960.

Fortunately, turkey production has kept up with consumption, more than tripling since 1960. Because of that, the bottom line to the consumer has stayed pretty much the same. In fact, retail prices for frozen turkeys haven't varied much more than 5% since 1980.

"The first specials we're seeing this year are somewhere around 69 cents a pound, about what they were last year at this time," Madison said.

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