Bird Flu Is Changing the Egg-Shopping Game

Prices are still high following the devastation brought to the poultry industry earlier in the year.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sep 2, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

I know bird flu led to an egg shortage, but isnt the epidemic over? Why are eggs still so expensive?

Jamie Lake

Eggs, a supermarket staple (and an inexpensive source of protein) for vast numbers of Americans, underwent an increase in price this summer because of an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza that originated in Asia and was first detected in North America in December 2014. Although the hot weather has halted the virus for now—according to The Poultry Site, no cases of avian flu have been recorded in the U.S. for more than seven weeks—no one who knows anything about the subject is relaxing one iota.

HPAI, which is difficult to contain and eradicate, has a mortality rate that can reach 90 to 100 percent within 48 hours, and this spring it devastated poultry farms in California, the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, Montana, and the Midwest. More than 48 million chickens, turkeys, and other birds have been culled to help control the spread of the virus. With quarantine, decontamination procedures, and flock repopulation, it can take up to a year or so before a poultry farm is up and running again, and the supply-and-demand imbalance means prices will likely stay high for the rest of the year.

The flu’s effects have hit egg-laying hens (as opposed to broilers, which are raised for their meat) and turkeys especially hard, as they live longer and thus have a greater chance of catching the virus. As of June 9, Wall Street Daily estimated that 15 percent of our country’s egg-producing birds have been culled, and another 10 percent are “offline,” meaning they aren’t producing.

“The cost of ‘breaker’ eggs, which are liquid eggs sold to food makers like Unilever (UN), food distributors such as Sysco (SYY), and fast food firms including McDonald’s (MCD), have soared,” senior correspondent Tim Maverick reported. “The price for these eggs is up 238% since the flu outbreak, from $0.63 per dozen to $2.13 per dozen.” The decreased egg supply has continued to ripple throughout the food industry: Increasingly, restaurants, bakeries, and even ice-cream manufacturers are being affected. It will be interesting to see how things shake out given the recently USDA-approved plan to import egg products (for use in commercial baking and processed foods) from the Netherlands—the first time since 2002 that the U.S. has purchased eggs from a European country.

The price for wholesale large-shell eggs—that is, what you buy at your local supermarket—also jumped about 120 percent, according to commodity market news service Urner Barry, which has been tracking egg prices since 1858.

Since June, however, wholesale egg prices have been dropping, and as Matthew Yglesias at Vox pointed out, actual data are tough to come by, especially when you take into account a national and global egg industry that is complex and far-reaching in scope. Those shell eggs in the dairy case? They’re just the tip of the iceberg. According to a report from the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, as a result of avian flu–related restrictions, lost exports of U.S. poultry and egg products to other countries reached almost $390 million during the first half of 2015.

Animal health experts are readying themselves for another flu flare-up. “While the HPAI virus is on somewhat of a hiatus during the warmer months of summer, the U.S. industry is bracing for its possible return this fall, as migratory birds—thought to be the primary vectors of the virus—head south for the winter,” explains The Poultry Site. “State and federal officials worry that wild birds will carry the virus into the Atlantic flyway that cuts through the heart of the main poultry-producing areas of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast.” Oh, goody—just in time for Thanksgiving.

The flu strain isn’t an issue for the wild birds carrying and shedding the virus, by the way—it doesn’t make them sick—nor is it worrisome for humans so far, unless they have prolonged and close contact with infected birds. As I mentioned earlier, however, it is lethal for domestic poultry, and the problem is compounded (surprise, surprise) by the overcrowded and stressful conditions found in industrial poultry operations, which, as it turns out, are no picnic for the producers either.

Independent small-scale producers of pastured poultry and eggs have cause for concern too. Their birds, which are more genetically diverse and provided with ample outdoor space, sunshine, and natural or organic feed, may have stronger immune systems. But according to ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture, a program developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, even low stress and a good immune system are no match for HPAI, and biosecurity—that is, keeping the birds protected and controlling what comes onto the farm—is needed to help prevent it. The USDA’s “Biosecurity for the Birds” Web page is useful for all small-scale producers, including backyard, hobby, and pet bird owners.

If there is any silver lining to this situation, it’s that the higher prices of regular supermarket eggs have encouraged some consumers to justify the expense of cage-free, organic, or pastured eggs, whether at the store or a farmers market. Those niche eggs typically cost more, but their prices haven’t kept pace with regular eggs, as those producers haven’t been hit as hard. Once you taste a really high-quality egg from pastured hens—I’ve always maintained it is one of life’s most inexpensive luxuries—it’s pretty much impossible to go back to its industrial counterpart.