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Cost increasingly no object for UK's Christmas bird

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Dec 5 (Reuters) When it comes to the Christmas turkey, a growing number of people in Britain are willing to pay for premium birds -- even if they could get 10 cheaper ones for the same price.

''The turkey market is splitting into two and the gap gets wider and wider every year,'' Paul Kelly, managing director of UK turkey producer Kelly Turkeys, said in an interview.

Kelly said British consumers buy about 10 million turkeys every Christmas but pay widely differing amounts for the bird which has long been associated with the annual feast.

''You can buy 10 frozen turkeys for the cost of one top-end turkey,'' Kelly said, adding that despite the price difference demand for frozen turkeys in Britain was in ''continual decline''.

About half of Britain's Christmas turkeys will be frozen, while of the balance about 1.5 million are categorised as ''traditional farm fresh,'' dry plucked on farm, hung for up to two weeks and normally sold through independent butchers.

''There is more demand for higher quality turkeys,'' Kelly, whose company produces organic, free range and other turkeys in the traditional farm fresh category, said.

Kelly said turkey orders had also recovered this year after a slight drop last year linked to concern about a deadly strain of bird flu .

''The public certainly seems a lot more confident this year,'' he said, noting that two or three per cent of consumers had opted last year for goose or beef amid widespread coverage in the British media as the virus spread towards Britain.

There has been just one case in Britain of the deadly H5N1 strain, in a swan found in Scotland in April. There have been no human cases.

AMERICAN VENTURE Kelly said his company plans next year to start producing turkeys in the United States, initially targetting the New York City market with a small farm in New York state.

''The industry in the US is entirely focused on reducing costs,'' he said, adding some had questioned whether US consumers would be willing to pay the high prices his company will charge for their turkeys.

Kelly said many UK turkey producers were struggling, with domestic production expected to drop to 16 million birds next year, down from 42 million about 15 years ago.

He said about 20 to 30 percent of Britain's Christmas turkeys would be imported this year, with frozen birds arriving from Brazil and Chile and fresh ones from European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy.

''Cheap imports have absolutely decimated the British industry (in the lower price, high volume sector of the turkey market),'' he said.

''British agriculture will never be able to compete on price and if that is the sole issue we might as well pack up but I don't think it is,'' Kelly said, adding many British consumers wanted to buy from local producers partly due to environmental issues related to transporting food over long distances.

REUTERS SHB RK0902

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