Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty
Turkey is a dry, unappetizing poultry, but Americans brave the risk of immolation year after year to make some 46 million of the birds taste good each Thanksgiving. This year, you may have seen reports that turkey will cost you less than last year, when it reached a record high of $64.05 for a 16-pound carcass, in part because of a severe avian-flu outbreak. But look closely at these stories. The data is coming from the same survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a farmer’s advocacy group, and relied on volunteer shoppers. And yet it looks like turkey actually being a good deal is another matter. Even if you pay a little bit less, chances are you’re still going to get ripped off.
Thanksgiving is America’s great hazing ritual. There’s the madhouse travel, the uncomfortable conversations with family, the sad Wednesday-night bar crawl with high-school friends. But, of course, we endure these things for a reason. (And isn’t our obsession with our uncles’ opinions a little overblown anyway?) Like a fraternity, inexplicable discomforts yield a community and a sense of identity that was otherwise missing from our lives. And what do people do when they get together with their loved ones? Complain, of course. Whining, especially about the cost of our holiday food, is a vital American heritage. The good news is that this year, the food lobbyists will not be able to take that away.
That’s Jason Furman, a Harvard economics professor and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. The data that he’s citing can be found here, in the Consumer Price Index, and is drawn from October’s inflation report, which was overall pretty good. Except, apparently, for turkey inflation. The cost of the fowl was up 7.2 percent from the same period last year. These are prices that are not adjusted for seasonal differences, which, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, are “of primary interest to consumers concerned about the prices they actually pay.” Imagine being interested in such a thing.
Every year, the cost of a Thanksgiving meal becomes a national obsession — or, at least, a thing that we in the media write about when things in the newsroom slow down. Despite all the stories about the price of the November 23 dinner going down this year, of course it’s going to increase. It’s been increasing all year — on average 3.3 percent, according to the Labor Department, which compiles the inflation data — and that isn’t going to just go into reverse all of a sudden. Go through the list of foods in the inflation report and see the jump in prices. Gravy, up 7.5 percent. Cranberries? Canned fruit is up 3.2 percent; “other” fresh fruit is 3.9 percent higher. Pies from the bakery cost 2.7 percent more. The only food that offers relief is mashed potatoes, since butter is down 3.7 percent, and potatoes are down 3.3 percent.
Perhaps there will be a significant drop in turkey prices as more buyers head to the stores. But there’s reason to be skeptical. Last year, the cost of a turkey dropped by one percent between October and November. A cursory look at turkey prices are all over the map, at least in New York. At Wegmans, the cheapest frozen turkey is $1.99 a pound — which is about 18 cents more per pound than last year’s average. Amazon’s cheapest whole turkeys go for 99 cents a pound but go as high as $3.99 per pound for the Whole Foods organic kind. Instacart, which is notoriously pricey, recommended to me a $1.99-per-pound Kirkwood frozen turkey from Aldi, though the Butterball brand was as low as $1.27. And if you’re in New York, you could always spend $700 on a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner and not bother with an oven.
So, yes, bargain hunters might be able to pay a little bit less than last year. But are they actually getting a deal? Note that Furman is responding to another tweet from Justin Wolfers, who’s an economics professor at the University of Michigan. That data, from a related dataset called the Producer Price Index, shows that the price of turkeys for the companies that actually slaughter the birds has crashed precipitously. Take a look for yourself. They’re down more than 38 percent in October from the year before. The processed turkeys — meaning the ones that are ready to cook — are somehow down even more, nearly 40 percent during the same period.
Is this “greedflation”? We can argue about what we name the phenomenon, but yes, duh. Turkey producers have one chance a year to really blow out their profits, so why wouldn’t they take it? It certainly doesn’t hurt to have an industry lobbying group release data that makes you think you’ll be getting a good deal. Just remember that nobody is making you buy a turkey. There are genuinely cheaper options out there. If you want to be historically accurate, try fresh lobster and shellfish — which the Pilgrims apparently ate — and cost 3.6 percent less in October than they did the previous year, according to the last inflation report. The cost of chicken fell 0.4 percent, too. It basically tastes the same, and you don’t have to blow yourself up to make it edible, either.