Eggs in Short Supply as Avian Flu Spreads

June 15, 2015

Due to the impact of the avian influenza on egg-laying hens, egg supplies are steadily decreasing to alarming levels. Egg prices are rising and expected to hit a new high in 2015, caused by the number of egg-laying hens killed by avian flu, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. The avian flu outbreak has devastated the U.S. hen-laying flock, and new outbreaks have been reported in recent weeks in Iowa and Minnesota. The results have affected at least 46 million chickens and turkeys, the USDA reports. Most of the birds that died were egg-laying hens. With fewer chickens laying eggs, a third of the supply for companies buying egg products has disappeared in just a few weeks.

The crisis has put a great burden on farms in Iowa, Indiana and Ohio, the largest egg producing states in the country, and affects other industries and products made from eggs. Prices of a dozen eggs will reach about $1.80 in the fourth quarter, with high costs expected to linger into 2016. Consumers are cutting back on egg use per person, pegged to be 249 eggs this year, down from 263 eggs consumed in 2014.

Egg rationing has been adopted as a last resort by supermarkets and grocery stores across the country, as well as major fast food industry breakfast servers like McDonald's. H-E-B, one of the biggest retail supermarket chains, is rationing its eggs. "H-E-B is committed to ensuring Texas families and households have access to eggs," it said in a press release. "The signs placed on our shelves are to deter commercial users from buying eggs in bulk."

Scott McClelland, H-E-B Houston president, told the Houston Chronicle that the company's "first and foremost" commitment is to supply everyday customers. "If we don't put a limit on our eggs, foodservice operators will fill what they can't get from their distributors from us. Hence the limit.

The American Bakers Association (ABA), Washington, says it wants to increase egg imports to ease the egg shortage by asking members to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress to increase egg and egg product imports into the country. The ABA says with the egg market struggling to fulfill demand from bakers and other food producers, it is urging the USDA to boost egg product import opportunities to help ease the crisis. While pasteurized egg products from The Netherlands are helping fill the gaps, more needs to be done, says the ABA's Cory Martin, director of government relations.

"Our members are not able to get their hands on enough eggs to continue their production. It's very much a crisis for us right now," Martin said.

While scientists thought warmer weather would kill off the H5N2 bird flu, the virus continues to wipe out poultry flocks in Minnesota's Renville County, including a pullet farm with 415,000 chickens, and a turkey farm, killing nearly 9 million birds in Minnesota alone.

Canada has been certified to sell liquid, dried and frozen egg products to the U.S. in recent years, but the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees imported egg products, announced in early June that the Netherlands again had been approved to export eggs to the U.S., which it hasn't done since 2002. To be used for commercial baking and in processed foods, the eggs will be supplied by five Dutch processors after rigorous certification and verification details are finalized.

Martin added that he was told by egg producers that it may take them up to two years to recover from this flu.

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