bird flu forcing farmers to kill millions of chickens; Egg prices could go up

A deadly and highly contagious bird flu is forcing US farmers to kill millions of laying hens, reducing the country’s egg supply and driving up prices in some areas. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

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ATLANTA – A deadly and highly contagious bird flu is forcing US farmers to kill millions of laying hens, reducing the country’s egg supply and driving up prices in some areas.

On Thursday, retailers paid between $2.80 and $2.89 for a dozen large Midwestern Class A white eggs, according to the USDA Midwest Daily Regional Egg Report. That’s more than double the roughly $1.25 they cost in March, according to the data compiled by Brian EarnestLead Protein Industry Analyst at Cobank, which provides financial services to the agribusiness.

Typically, large white eggs cost between $0.70 and $1.10 per dozen in this region, said Earnest, who noted that Midwest prices serve as a national benchmark. Around Easter, when demand is high, those prices can reach around $2, he said — far lower than Thursday.

Higher feed costs and supply chain difficulties have made many foods more expensive this year, and eggs are no exception. But that particular surge is being driven by the highly pathogenic bird flu, which has been detected in flocks across the country, Earnest noted. It is the worst outbreak of bird flu in the United States since 2015.

Although influenza is fatal to poultry, it is “primarily an animal health problem”. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which added that “the risk to public health from current H5N1 avian influenza viruses is low.”

Because flu is so contagious and deadly to birds, USDA protocol calls for killing infected flocks to curb the spread of the disease.

In Iowa, the nation’s top egg producer, “we currently have more than a dozen locations affected by the disease,” including three facilities where chickens lay eggs, said Chloe Carson, communications director for the Iowa Department of Agriculture. As a result, “we had to depopulate 11.2 million layers,” out of about 56 million total layers in Iowa, she said.

This particular strain of flu is spread by wild migratory birds, Carson explained. The migration season typically lasts from March to May, she noted.

“As long as migration patterns continue, there is a risk that disease will continue to be introduced into our native populations,” Carson said.

More expensive eggs this summer?

Although wholesale egg prices are skyrocketing, that doesn’t mean supermarkets are passing those costs on to consumers, Earnest explained.

Retailers will often “take a loss on eggs to boost store traffic,” he said. Generally around Easter or Christmas, when people are more likely to be baking, “we’re going to see a reduced price for eggs on the shelves.”

Rather than raising prices, some stores appear to be dealing with the higher costs by eliminating their egg promotions.

“Retail promotional activity was very limited and offered little incentive for shoppers to shop beyond immediate needs,” according to the USDA’s Weekly Egg Market Survey. published last Friday.

At some point, prices are likely to rise.

“I would expect that in the summer months of this year we would see a premium of at least 30 or 40 percent on top of (typical prices) due to tighter supply,” Earnest said.

He also noted that laying hen numbers were relatively low even before the flu was discovered in the US earlier this year. And stocks of frozen or dried eggs are “significantly lower than they normally are,” he said. That could mean there will be some egg shortages later this year.

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