What Ending NAFTA Would Mean for America's Turkeys

Mexico is by far the largest customer for U.S. turkey exports—for now.

Donald Trump and National Turkey Federation Chairman Carl Wittenburg, flanked by family members, pardon a turkey. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Don’t let all the smiles at this year’s presidential Thanksgiving-turkey-pardoning ceremony fool you; these are turbulent times for turkeys and their lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. turkey industry is “still working to recover” from a massive outbreak of bird flu in 2015, which disrupted turkey production at home and had “a radical effect on the export market,” as National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger told me by email. This is particularly true in Mexico, by far the largest customer for American turkey-meat exports. (Since exports have dropped while domestic production has stayed steady, there’s something of a glut in the U.S. market at the moment, which means the turkey you bought this year was probably a bit cheaper than in previous years.)

The damage, moreover, could have been much worse had there been no North American Free Trade Agreement—which encouraged Mexico and Canada, another top destination for U.S. turkey exports, to refrain from banning all U.S. poultry products in response to the outbreak. Instead, America’s NAFTA partners trusted U.S. regulators to ensure that only non-contaminated fowl from unaffected parts of the country were approved for export. (China, which doesn’t have a free-trade deal with the United States, issued a full ban and has yet to lift it, even though the outbreak is over.)

Now the durability of NAFTA is in serious doubt. Negotiations to update the accord, which launched after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw from it, broke up this week in disagreement over the Trump administration’s efforts to shift the terms of the deal dramatically in America’s favor. Among the many sticking points, according to Agri-Pulse: demands “that Canada completely open its market to U.S. exports of chicken, turkey and eggs, something Canadian industry officials say they are vehemently opposed to.”

The National Turkey Federation, which represents the interests of turkey farmers and processors, supports certain proposals to modernize NAFTA, such as greater access to the Canadian market for U.S. turkey products. But as Trump and his trade representative have signaled that the administration might terminate NAFTA altogether, the National Turkey Federation and other industry groups have enthusiastically endorsed the deal as a blessing for American agriculture.

As Kevin Brosch, an adviser to the poultry industry, told the House Committee on Agriculture earlier this year, the United States and Brazil are the two leading poultry-exporting nations, and trade pacts like NAFTA “have been the mechanisms that have helped to sustain U.S. world leadership in poultry exports.” When NAFTA first came into force in 1994, he noted, “the United States had only limited [poultry] exports to Mexico.” Now it exports roughly $1 billion in poultry products a year to its southern neighbor. (The turkey is native to North America. Only in recent decades have people elsewhere in the world acquired a taste for the bird, helping counteract stagnant demand for turkey products in the United States.)

“Our success in the Mexican market is a key component of the profitability of our industry, and means many thousands of U.S. jobs,” Brosch said. “The majority of turkey exports go into Mexico for further processing, creating jobs on both sides of the border.” U.S. states such as Minnesota and North Carolina, the two biggest turkey producers in the country, would suffer most if the NAFTA renegotiation collapses and the agreement is scrapped.

Such an outcome probably wouldn’t ruffle Trump’s feathers. He has, after all, described NAFTA as the “worst trade deal ever made.” But while turkeys themselves might agree with the president, the producers who put turkey on your Thanksgiving table certainly do not. “I’m pleased to report that, unlike millions of other turkeys at this time of the year, Drumstick has a very, very bright future ahead of him,” Trump said this week, in granting a pardon to a turkey from the Minnesota farm of the chairman of the National Turkey Federation. The chairman and his family stood nearby, beaming for the cameras. Nobody mentioned the future of NAFTA.