By Tim Relf

TURKEY farmers are facing another Christmas of stiff competition from imports.

As in other areas of agriculture, Sterlings strength is putting pressure on the frozen market, says Mike Boon of the British Turkey Federation.

Demand for fresh product continues to be strong, he says. “More and more people want to sit down to a fresh turkey on Christmas Day. For the most important meal of the year, they want a fresh – not frozen – one.”

With retailers unlikely to stock as many big birds this year, people looking for 12lb-plus ones should shop early to avoid disappointment. “If you are getting the family around, the last thing you want is to run out,” says Mr Boon.

Turkey demand is unlikely to get the same boost this Christmas as it did in previous years when, with BSE in the news, customers looked for an alternative to beef. Frozen meat is also facing stiff import competition

In the frozen sector, retailers are pricing “nearer to cost” after a period of using them as loss-leaders. The level will be about 59p/lb, after last seasons 49p/lb. And the figures in 1996 and 1995 were 39p and 29p/lb respectively.

Asdas decision to sell only British turkeys this Christmas – as part of its larger initiative to back British meat – has been welcomed by the British Turkey Information Service. “A massive vote of confidence in UK farmers, ” said a BTIS spokesman. The coming weeks will, he adds, see retailers offering “exceptional” value for money.

“Whole birds will still remain the major part of the festive market, with sales of frozen birds expected to remain static,” says the BTIS.

In the 1997 festive period there was a 17.4% value sales increase achieved in fresh turkey sales compared with 1996. Heavy retailer discounting in the last 10 days before Christmas also increased sales of frozen whole birds by 30.5%.

Meanwhile smaller families and the growing need for convenience means that smaller joints, such as crown roasts, are increasing in popularity. The value of sales in the roll and roast sector, for example, rose 18% to £13.8 million in the first six months of this year.

Paul Kelly of the Traditional Farm Fresh Turkey Association says farmgate prices will average £2.80/lb. “The threat for us is not imports – because the people that are buying our birds are not buying on price – but increasing legislation.”

He says many of the smaller mixed farmers will stop keeping poultry in the face of the unjustifiably high investment needed to comply with government rules. “And for a lot of them, its probably the only profitable part of their business.”

Fresh goose sales should also increase, says John Adlard, chairman of the British Goose Producers Association. With inquires from customers coming earlier than ever before, hes predicting a “complete sell-out”.

The fresh product, says Mr Adlard, retains its traditional appeal, ideal for people looking for an alternative to turkey. As regards the frozen item, though, sellers will be wary of getting caught with unsold stocks. “Trying to sell geese after Christmas is like trying to sell Christmas trees on New Years Day.”