President Joe Biden has lost out on many of the silly, incidental customs and traditions that come with being elected president in his first year in office: no inaugural parade or balls, no Easter Egg roll on the South Lawn, no ribbing reporters at the White House Correspondents Dinner or handing out candy to the trick-or-treating children of staffers and friends at Halloween.
So Biden will likely be thankful for one rare opportunity to preside over the most lighthearted of presidential ceremonies on Friday: the official pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey named Peanut Butter.
But even that ludicrous tradition—historically a chance for even the most beleaguered presidents to loosen their ties and make puns about cranberry sauce ahead of the holiday—is being gobbled up by the pandemic and the economic chaos that it has wrought.
The price of turkey has risen by 68 percent over the past two years, according to a Wells Fargo analysis of turkey producer prices released earlier this month. While consumer prices haven’t increased by quite that much—larger frozen birds, the ones that met the fate that Peanut Butter will avoid by presidential decree, are easier to keep in stock than smaller fresh birds, which means they’re less prone to price fluctuation—the Farm Bureau found that the average cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for a family of 10 has increased by 14 percent since last year, with the turkey alone increasing in price by a whopping 24 percent.
Farm Bureau senior economist Veronica Nigh pinned the rise in “dramatic disruptions to the U.S. economy and supply chains over the last 20 months,” as well as inflationary pressure and a high global demand for meat as more people have stayed home and cooked rather than eaten out.
What has followed is a war of birds—sorry, words—between government economists and agricultural experts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent out a defensive statement regarding the retail cost of Thanksgiving dinner staples on Wednesday, noting that despite some price increases—the department claimed a more modest 5 percent rise since 2020—the administration was “taking every step we can to mitigate that.”
“The good news is that the top turkey producers in the country are confident that everyone who wants a bird for their Thanksgiving dinner will be able to get one, and a large one will only cost one dollar more than last year,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a longtime Biden ally. “That’s why the president has been so focused on creating millions of jobs, getting wages up, and getting tax cuts to working families.”
The price and availability of turkeys, like nearly every other item on the grocery store shelf, have been screwed up by the “everything shortage” caused by supply-chain bottlenecks and lingering uncertainty from pandemic-scarred producers, said Professor Jayson Lusk, head of the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University. But turkey economics can be more complicated than a simple matter of supply and demand.
One major factor, Lusk said, started before Biden was even elected president.
A spike in the price of soybeans and corn—caused by a voracious Chinese market, droughts across the western hemisphere, and a derecho that caused $11 billion in damage across swaths of the Midwest—all contributed to higher feed prices, and turkeys have to eat. Similarly skyrocketing costs for pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer, too, has increased the cost of raising a turkey from egg to slaughter.
“All those things have made feed prices more expensive,” Lusk said, “and feed is a major cost for turkey production.”
But the labor shortage, another major factor in the rise in food pricing this Thanksgiving, isn’t so easily dodged by force majeure.
“If you look at wages in the meat-processing sector, they’re up almost 20 percent compared to before the pandemic,” Lusk said. “They’re having a hard time getting enough labor, and they’re having to pay workers more to get them to show up. So that’s an extra cost in the system that has to go somewhere, right? And higher meat prices is one of them.”
Strangely enough, Friday’s turkey pardoning ceremony—officially known as the “National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation,” capital letters and all—can trace its origins to another post-crisis supply crisis in the United States, when President Harry Truman became the turkey industry’s Public Enemy No. 1.
“Back in 1947, there were still food shortages occurring as a result of World War II in Europe and in the United States, so the government decided to implement an initiative called ‘Poultryless Thursdays,’ where they didn’t want Americans to consume poultry on Thursdays,” said Lina Mann, a historian at the White House Historical Association. “It caused a huge uproar in the turkey community.”
Poultry farmers, who pointed out that Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day all fell on a Thursday, were as mad as wet hens, and began protesting by sending live chickens to the White House in a campaign called “Hens for Harry.”
“Crates of chickens would show up to the White House for Harry Truman,” Mann said.
As a gesture of goodwill towards turkey farmers, the White House coordinated with the poultry-industrial complex to present the president with a (non-protest) turkey that year. The ceremony became an annual tradition to boost the National Turkey Federation from then on, although the first official “pardon” didn’t take place until 1989.
But Biden’s road to smoothing consumer price pressures won’t be so easy as accepting a free turkey, Lusk said, or passing the Build Back Better Act, as the White House has frequently declared when asked about other kitchen-table effects of inflationary pressures and the supply-chain crisis.
“Input prices are really high right now, and that has an impact on the cost of production for next year’s corn and soybean production, and that may not go away,” Lusk said. “There’s a huge amount of uncertainty out there as to when these price increases will dissipate.”
The White House has downplayed any greater significance of Friday’s ceremony, batting away questions about why the president is pardoning turkeys before he has pardoned a human being, with deputy press secretary telling reporters on Tuesday that the pardons are “a lighthearted tradition.” (An administration spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for more information on the turkeys’ backstory and future, however, possibly because The Daily Beast’s line of questioning about the naming process was too lighthearted.)
At least two turkeys, of course, will not fall victim to the increased consumer demand for their flesh. Peanut Butter and Jelly—they can be distinguished by Peanut Butter’s smooth wattle and Jelly’s slightly girthier snood—will retire to Purdue University’s Animal Science Research and Education Center, three hours north of the farm where they were raised.
“The turkeys will be housed in a facility where they will have a choice of being able to spend some of their time outdoors (weather permitting, of course),” said Dr. Marisa Erasmus, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Purdue. “We have experts in poultry nutrition, management, health, and behavior and well-being, so with daily monitoring and a diet tailored to their age and nutritional needs, Peanut Butter and Jelly will receive excellent care to ensure an optimal quality of life.”
Unless, of course, the nation’s turkey supply drops again.
“To my knowledge, pardoned turkeys haven’t later been eaten,” said Mann. “But you may have to check.”