Gobbler fans look for deals

ALBANY — Despite higher food prices, consumers still have plenty to be thankful for when making the annual pilgrimage to grocery stores to prepare for a big Thanksgiving meal.

Thanksgiving staples turkey and ham are increasing in price but still remain a good deal, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In its 27th annual informal price survey of the cost of a “classic” Thanksgiving dinner — turkey, stuffing, cranberries, pumpkin pie and all the basic trimmings — the AFBF found that the increase in cost from 2011 is less than 1 percent.

In a report released Thursday, AFBF said the average cost of this year’s classic feast for 10 is $49.48, a 28-cent price increase from last year’s average of $49.20. The organization had 155 shoppers check prices at grocery stores and supermarkets in 35 states.

“At just under $5 per person, the cost of this year’s meal remains a bargain,” AFBF President Bob Stallman, a rice and cattle producer from Texas, said in a news release. “Our diverse farm and ranch families are honored to produce the food from our nation’s land for family Thanksgiving celebrations. During this holiday season, I am encouraging farmers and ranchers to reach out to consumers in-person or through social media, to answer questions about the food that they grow or the livestock and poultry they raise.”

In Albany, a quick survey of four grocery stores in which a basic Thanksgiving meal of turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, pecan pie, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, flour and corn bread mix were priced showed a relatively tight range of prices.

Costs ranged from $51.21 to a high of $64.93.

In the Farm Bureau survey, a 16-pound turkey came in at $22.23 this year, about $1.39 per pound, an increase 66 cents, or about 4 cents per pound, from 2011. That Thanksgiving centerpiece of many U.S. tables showed the largest price increase compared to last year, AFBF officials said, but what is behind the increase is up for debate.

Albany shoppers, however, are likely to get much better deals on their birds. In examining turkey prices at the four Albany grocery stores on Thursday, 20-pound whole turkeys ranged from $22.34 on the high end to a surprising low of $12.21.

John Anderson, the AFBF’s deputy chief economist, said that demand was driving turkey prices upward.

“Thanksgiving dinner is a special meal that people look forward to all year,” Anderson said. “Most Americans will pay about the same as last year at the grocery store for a turkey and all the trimmings. A slight increase in demand for turkey is responsible for the moderate price increase our shoppers reported for the bird.”

Wholesale turkey prices have climbed around 6 percent this year because of the nationwide drought, said Kimmon Williams with the National Turkey Federation. The NTF, located in Washington, D.C., is a national advocate for all segments of the turkey industry, representing its members in legislative and regulatory affairs.

While that may translate to the largest increase in the price of the family dinner, the cost of the bird itself may be lost in the consumer shuffle.

“Supermarkets in many areas use turkey as a ‘lead’ item, free with the other makings of a meal,” Williams said.

Williams did say that turkey prices could rise more next year, depending on certain circumstances.

For grocers, however, it’s all about the cost of fuel.

Charles Standridge is the grocery manager for a Harvey’s Supermarket in Albany. He said increases in food prices are mostly the result of increasing fuel costs.

“In my opinion, 90 percent of it is because of fuel prices,” Standridge said. “It takes fuel in the tractors to keep the farms going. It takes fuel to process the food, and it takes fuel to transport it to the grocery store.”

Smart shoppers may find some better deals on their birds, Anderson said. Farm Bureau officials said their volunteer shoppers were asked to look for the best possible prices, but they were told not to take advantage of special deals, such as ones like Williams mentioned where a customer gets a free turkey for spending a certain amount on their overall grocery purchase, in figuring the survey costs.

“Turkeys may still be featured in special sales and promotions close to Thanksgiving,” Anderson explained. “Anyone with the patience to wait until the last minute to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving could be rewarded with an exceptional bargain.”

According to the survey, miscellaneous items — including coffee and ingredients necessary to prepare the meal (onions, eggs, sugar, flour, evaporated milk and butter) — increased in price to $3.18. A dozen brown-and-serve rolls were also up 3 cents, averaging $2.33.

The survey also found some decreases. A half-pint of whipping cream averaged $1.83, down 13 cents; a 14-ounce package of cubed bread stuffing was $2.77, down 11 cents; three pounds of sweet potatoes were $3.15, down 11 cents; a gallon of whole milk was $3.59, down 7 cents; fresh cranberries were $2.45, down 3 cents; a pound of green peas was $1.66, down 2 cents; a 30-ounce can of pumpkin pie mix and two nine-inch pie shells were $5.53, down 2 cents. Meanwhile, a one-pound relish tray of carrots and celery remained at the 2011 average of 76 cents.

Farm Bureau officials say their data are not necessarily scientifically accurate, but rather an informal gauge of price trends. The survey menu has not changed since the first survey in 1986.

That original survey showed the cost of a classic Thanksgiving feast at $28.74. Ten years ago, the price was $34.56, and in 1992 the cost was $26.39, according to the Farm Bureau’s listed survey prices. The last time there was a year-to-year decrease in the survey was 2009, when the cost dropped from 2008’s $44.61 to $42.91.