Avian Flu Ripples Through the Egg Supply Chain

Public Official performing an Avian Flu test.   Photo Source:  Joint Hometown News Service via Flickr

Public Official performing an Avian Flu test.  
Photo Source:  Joint Hometown News Service via Flickr

Sickness travels fast in close quarters. Unfortunately, that makes a confined animal feeding operation (CAFOs) the ideal place for a disease to become an epidemic. Birds, who are packed together even more tightly than CAFO pigs or cattle, are at particular risk. Last year, a porcine epidemic virus may have killed as many as 10-percent of U.S. pigs but in just the last six months, over 48 million birds have been affected—mostly egg-laying hens and turkeys.

Actually contracting the avian flu, however, is not responsible for all of these bird deaths over the last six months. Some producers have had to euthanize their entire stock in order to prevent the rapid spread of disease. According to the Sioux City Journal, once the virus is detected, farmers must cull the entire flock and have the farm area sanitized. The current bird flu has affected 223 flocks according to USDA data, each one ranging in size from 10 to 4.9 million birds. Disposing of the infected birds raises significant space and sanitation issues. There’s no vaccine currently effective enough for use.

So far, the virus has limited itself to the West Coast and Midwest. Iowa, one of the hardest hit states with over 75 detection's of the virus, is also the leader of U.S. egg production, with more than 16 billion eggs produced in 2014. In second place is Ohio with 8 billion eggs—half of Iowa’s production.

Since December 2014, the virus has killed 13 percent of the 358 million egg-laying hens in the United States and the effects of shortages are felt throughout the poultry industry. As early as January, over thirty countries banned poultry imports from the United States—even meat, which the bird flu has (so far) not affected as extremely as it has the egg industry.

Yet, with talk of “egg rationing” running rampant in the news, the price of shell eggs has only just began to increase notably in the last month. During the month of May, for a dozen white, grade A eggs, prices increased from $1.22 per dozen to $1.42. Now, in late June, that price has increased to $2.05. 

Compared to the shell egg industry, however, other forms of eggs were hit harder and earlier. Referencing Urner Barry—a leading food commodity tracker—CNN reported that in May, “90% of the eggs taken out of production were meant for the egg processing market.” Many of these were liquid eggs or “breaker eggs,” subject to a price hike from $0.63 to $1.52 a dozen between April and May. Companies use liquid eggs in anything from mayonnaise, to cake batters, to fast food breakfasts. Burger chain Whataburger announced that they are now only serving eggs from 5am until 11am (though “breakfast” hours extend from 11am to 11pm) “while supplies last.” Large chains rely on carefully tested recipes over long periods of time. For most of these chain restaurants and producers, finding a quick egg substitute is likely a logistical and budgetary nightmare.

Microscopic view of the Avian Flu virus.   Photo Source:  Center for Disease Control 

Microscopic view of the Avian Flu virus.  
Photo Source:  Center for Disease Control 

Texas grocery chain H-E-B has placed a 3-carton limit per purchase for customers. KXAN reported that the chain’s reason for the new rule was mostly to “deter commercial users from buying eggs in bulk.”

In response to the crisis, the USDA announced earlier this month that imports from the Netherlands would be permissible. Previously, only eggs from Canada were authorized for importation. Yet, even with these imports to fill in supply gaps, U.S. veterinary generalJohn Clifford predicts that the virus will wane in the summer month, but then uptick again in the autumn as birds begin migrating for the winter months. Moreover, local news sources in North Carolina have circulated reports that the avian flu is coming their way indicating that the southern egg producers might soon suffer from the virus.

While it might be difficult for experts to say when the outbreak will reach its peak, it is clear that the egg market is in trouble.