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Egg shortages and price increases caused in part by the avian flu outbreak

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A staple food that for decades was a relatively cheap and reliable item has now become an elusive and even luxuriously priced commodity.

At Whole Foods in Manhattan on Wednesday, shelves were empty for the cheapest eggs — $3.39 for a box of 12 large Grade A brown eggs.

What remained were more expensive options, such as organic, cage-free eggs, for more than $7. national eggs”. Other supermarkets, such as certain Kroger locations in the US and Lidl in Britain, have also limited egg purchases. Egg prices in some countries are rising sharply.

One factor behind the shortages and sharp rise in egg prices is an outbreak of avian flu, also known as bird flu, a highly contagious virus that is often fatal to chickens. Since the outbreak was detected last February, more than 57 million birds in hundreds of commercial and backyard flocks have been affected by it, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Infected or exposed flocks are culled to prevent the spread of the virus, a move that has resulted in the depopulation of more than 44 million laying hens in the US since the outbreak, according to the Department of Agriculture. Depopulations at commercial facilities have decreased domestic egg supplies by about 7.5% on average each month since the outbreak began, the department said.

Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that after facilities are sanitized and restocked with healthy laying hens, it takes about four to five months for them to “reach peak production.” productivity” of about 24 eggs per month. .

The virus has also been detected around the world, including Canada and countries in Europe and South America, according to United Egg Producers, a trade group that represents most commercial egg producers in the United States.

Emily Metz, president and chief executive of the American Egg Board, said in an interview Wednesday that while avian flu has played a role, rising fuel, feed and packaging costs have also contributed to more expensive and scarce eggs.

“Is avian flu a factor? Yes,” said Mrs. Metz. “Is it the only factor? No, and I would say it’s not even the biggest factor in where those prices are right now.”

Combined, the avian flu and other rising costs have created scenes of empty supermarket shelves across the country, from Colorado to New York. In some cases, people have resorted to buying their own chickens, local media in Arizona and Massachusetts reported.

While the shortage hasn’t been dire, the jump in prices is noticeable for consumers and businesses alike. As of January 2022, the average price of a dozen large Grade A eggs in the U.S. was $1.39, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In November, the average price increased to $3.59.

Ben Suh, owner of Between the Bagel NY in Queens, said he tried to hold off raising prices as long as he could, but that he would soon increase the cost of menu items with eggs. For example, the price of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich will rise from $6 to $7, Suh said.

“Everyone has been struggling since the beginning of the pandemic, so we are trying to keep our prices low,” said Suh.

A year ago, Suh said he would typically pay $70 to $80 for 30 dozen eggs. Now he is paying $150 to $160 for the same order, he said.

“Everything has doubled,” Suh said, adding that because of inflation, he also had to pay more for other products, including bacon and coffee.

At Brey’s Egg Farm in Jeffersonville, NY, flocks of chickens have been spared from avian flu. Daniel Brey, the farm’s owner, said that after a destructive outbreak of avian flu across the country in 2014 and 2015 killed more than 50 million birds, he set up a gate around his farm to keep out wild birds. and potentially spread disease.

Mr. Brey said vehicles entering the farm were sprayed with disinfectant, another precaution to protect the farm, which produces 228,000 eggs daily.

“This stuff is so contagious,” Brey said of avian flu. “You have to be careful everywhere.”

Although avian flu rarely infects humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the contagiousness of the virus requires farmers to quickly cull infected and exposed livestock.

“This virus is fatal,” Metz said. “As soon as it comes into contact with its flock, it will kill its birds.”

With fewer reported cases of avian flu at commercial egg-laying facilities in recent weeks, Brey said he believed egg shortages would soon ease, as would high prices. But Brey said he was concerned that cases could come back in the spring and spread to other birds such as geese, ducks, hawks and eagles.

So far this year, reported cases of avian flu have dropped significantly, with just one commercial flock and 10 backyard flocks affected, according to the Department of Agriculture, compared with more than 5.07 million birds in December and more than 3.75 million birds in November.

A statement from United Egg Producers last week echoed that assessment, saying there was an expected lull in the virus over the next two months, but the group warned of “detections rapidly increasing as the spring and migration season renews itself”.

Cole said that as farms restock, supply will likely improve, but she warned that the virus still persists in the United States.

“We know that there will continue to be a threat to domestic birds as long as the HPAI virus is circulating in wild birds, so all poultry owners must remain vigilant,” Cole said, referring to the avian virus.

For now, stores like Kroger, Whole Foods and Lidl are limiting customers’ egg purchases.

A spokeswoman for Kroger said that avian flu has caused “tens of millions of birds to be removed from the U.S. egg production and supply chain in the past nine months” but that Kroger’s “supply of eggs remains adequate” .

A Lidl spokesman said: “In periods of high demand relative to product supply, as national retailers are seeing today with eggs, our stores may impose temporary quantity limits on products in high demand.”

Mrs. Metz said that as avian flu persists, farmers will have to continue to control outbreaks of the virus, measures they are better prepared to take after experiencing the 2014-2015 outbreak.

“We are recovering much more quickly than we did in 2015,” Metz said. “Managing the virus will be much better and will be a much smaller factor as we move up in pricing.”