Price war makes turkeys cheaper than dog food

British farmers and a manufacturer feel the chill of Christmas competit ion. James Bethell reports
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A price war is driving Britain turkey-mad. Demand has soared as supermarkets, determined to offer the best Yuletide deal, have cut prices as low as 34p a pound, making the Christmas roast cheaper than dog food.

Each Christmas the country spends more than £150m buying 5 million birds. This year looks likely to break records as the market is flooded with cheap frozen birds. Some stores have even given away a Christmas turkey with bulk buys.

However, the sudden demand for turkeys has emptied freezers of the cheapest birds at some supermarkets. Wholesale prices paid to farmers are edging higher and retailers are ordering rush imports from producers in Brittany.

Industry experts say falling turkey prices have hit chicken sales. "Turkeys have been selling like wildfire," said Royan Davis, a spokesman for Kwik-Save, the discount food chain, which is running short of its 33p-a-pound oven-ready turkeys.

Concern is mounting that the supermarkets' price war is causing casualties among butchers and farmers. Labour's agriculture spokesman, Dr Gavin Strang, supports calls by butchers and farmers for an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading into predatory pricing.

Britain's 11,000 independent butchers, who supply more than 20 per cent of the country's turkeys, complain they are losing valuable Christmas trade to supermarkets that subsidise turkeys by up to 60 per cent of the retail price with income from other sales.

"We are being caught in the crossfire of a war not of our making," said John Fuller, director of the Association of Meat and Food Traders.

Farmers raising top-quality turkeys are suffering as shoppers turn from premium birds to the cut-price frozen birds. Freshly slaughtered, hand-plucked corn-fed fowl can cost up to £2.50 a pound. "Our concern is that the ecological producers are being injured by the price war," said Hugh Raven of the ecological lobby group SAFE.

He fears that although shoppers may be enjoying wonderful bargains today, when the price war ends there will be fewer farmers producing high-quality birds and there will be fewer independent butchers competing against the big chain stores.

"It is a form of unfair trading," said Lady Rose of Path Hill Farm in Whitechurch-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. She raises 150 turkeys organically, some of the 2.5million fresh turkeys served each year. "The supermarkets are making our top-quality birds look like a rip-off."

David Lidgate, the award-winning west London butcher, warned shoppers not to be seduced by the bargain birds. Turkeys contain 70 per cent water and turn into ice-balls when frozen, he says. After defrosting, much of the water escapes, along with the natural juices and flavour.

A spokesman for Sainsbury, which is selling grade A frozen turkey for 38p a pound, said: "We have taken into account the best interests of our customers in the current competitive environment." A can of Pedigree Chum at Tesco in Bethnal Green Road sells for 49.9p a pound.