More Americans are passing on old-fashioned bacon, red meat to chow down on turkey

Free range turkeys
Artur Widak | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Free range turkeys

From turkey sausage to sandwich meat, Americans are gobbling up more of the bird outside of Thanksgiving — sending its consumption growing at a faster clip than that of red meat.

Per capita consumption of turkey is expected to rise roughly 6 percent this year, to an average 17 pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That compares with growth of 2.4 percent for beef, 1.6 percent for chicken and less than 0.5 percent of pork.

The increase comes amid a recent marketing push by large producers to promote the meat as a healthier alternative. Restaurants are also tapping into the trend, with the top fast-food chains adding 12 percent more turkey-based items to their menus over the past five years, according to Technomic.

Still, the bird remains a fraction of the total consumption of all red meat and poultry, which is estimated to hit 214.8 pounds in 2016.

"We see more consumers choosing turkey because it is a nutritious, delicious and versatile protein," said Rick Williamson, a spokesman for Hormel Foods, which owns the Jennie-O Turkey brand. "This is particularly true with millennials because they come of age at a time when the importance of lean protein has been emphasized."

Jennie-O relaunched its "Make the Switch" campaign this year, and is putting more advertising dollars behind its push to get consumers to eat more turkey. While Hormel has not quantified its spending, the company told analysts in May that its key brands have made "significant double-digit advertising increases over the last several years," which were planned to continue this year.

Butterball, the largest overall producer of turkey products in the nation, also has a campaign focused on people known as "Turketarians," who have switched to the protein.

"We tend to have a pretty good price relationship to the red meats, so that usually works well for us," said Butterball executive vice president of sales Jay Jandrain.

Of course, that pricing relationship largely depends on supply. Producers last year suffered a setback when more than 7 million pounds of turkey were lost to the avian flu epidemic, sending prices higher. In May of this year, there were strains of the bird flu found on a Missouri turkey farm. Nearly 40,000 birds were killed as a precaution.

While there have been some reports of a shortage of white meat turkey this year, Butterball insists that's not the case. To meet demand, it's expanding national production of whole birds at roughly 30 farms.

"We have no issues going into this holiday season," Jandrain said.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast the number of turkeys raised nationally this year would reach 243 million birds, up 4 percent from 2015. That would represent the most robust year-over-year percentage growth in nearly a decade.

Yet despite this increase in supply, government data released last month predicted prices would rise in 2016, partly due to the lingering impact of last year's shortage. The price of frozen whole turkeys this year is expected in a range of $1.18 to $1.20 per pound, compared with $1.16 in 2015. Before the bird flu hit, that number was $1.08 in 2014.

"While the production of turkey has been strong, the stocks of the whole birds in cold storage has been a bit low," said USDA economist Sean Ramos.

The Jennie-O Turkey Store segment of Hormel Foods was one of the producers last year forced to idle some turkey plants due to the bird flu. The business is rebounding in 2016 and is one of Hormel's strongest performers. Hormel recently opened a new distribution facility on the East Coast to meet growing demand and deliver products faster in certain markets.

"Our Jennie-O turkey store business continues to be a growth vehicle for our organization," Hormel President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Snee, who will assume the CEO role Oct. 31, told analysts at an investor conference last month.

In its fiscal third quarter, Hormel reported Jennie-O Turkey segment profits increased 59 percent on a 20 percent increase in sales. Among the products management singled out as having "nice retail sales growth" was the Jennie-O turkey bacon product.

Hormel's research shows millennials — the 18- to 34-year-old generation — are buying turkey at a faster rate than the overall population.

"I personally choose turkey or lean meats most of the time," said Sophie Wix, a pre-med student at the University of Southern California. "A lot of red meat is high in preservatives and fat. I like to put turkeys in salads or quinoa."