Egg prices fall, but threat of bird flu not over yet: Gunshots
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Have you seen the funny internet memes about high egg prices? Like the one where a guy gets down on his knees to propose, but instead of a ring, he pops out a dozen precious eggs!
Well, egg prices have finally started to drop. “We’re seeing that wholesale prices are starting to come down,” says David Ortega, a food economist at Michigan State University. The wholesale price of a dozen eggs in the Midwest market fell 58 cents to $3.29 per dozen in late January, USDA data showed.
There’s a lag between lower wholesale prices and what we pay at the grocery store, Ortega says, but we can expect relief soon. I have already seen the prices drop in my local supermarket.
However, the days of $1.50 per dozen may not return any time soon. This is partly because inflation has driven up the cost of feed, transportation and labor. But the main factor impacting egg prices is the outbreak of bird flu – highly pathogenic avian influenza (HAPI) – which can spread rapidly from flock to flock and is deadly in chickens. The CDC estimates that more than 58 million birds have died or been culled due to the current outbreak.
The virus has caused an acute “shock” to the egg supply, Ortega says. And “there is a lot of uncertainty about how long this outbreak will last.” Amid such unpredictability, Ortega says prices are sticky. “They tend to go up quickly, but take a lot longer to go down.”
Bird flu isn’t new, but scientists say this current outbreak is more widespread and deadlier than the last outbreak in 2015. It has been detected in wild birds in all 50 states. Typically, wild birds do not fall ill with the virus, but the circulating strain now appears to be more virulent. “We’re seeing symptoms and we’re seeing mortality in some of the wild birds,” said poultry scientist Phillip Clauer of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. “This time it’s deadlier,” Clauer said.
The latest CDC data shows bird flu has been detected in a range of species, including black vultures and geese. There are also a few recent reports of infection in Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles.
Since bird flu began circulating last year, there have been outbreaks at poultry farms in 47 states. Outbreaks typically begin when wild birds, such as geese, infect chickens, turkeys, or other waterfowl in commercial or backyard flocks. Once an infection is detected in a herd, the USDA euthanizes the entire herd. “This highly pathogenic disease is very deadly,” says Clauer. “So the idea is to take over and help the birds die in a humane way and not let the disease continue to spread,” he explains.
In recent years, farmers have increased biosecurity measures to protect their herds. “You try to build barriers,” Clauer explains. For example, because the virus can be spread through bird poo or feathers, workers take precautions to keep their hands, clothes, and shoes clean. Tools and equipment must also be disinfected.
Farmers try to discourage waterfowl from landing in fields near their chicken coops. “You set a parameter around your poultry to protect them,” says Clauer.
The virus poses a “low risk” to people, according to the CDC. The agency says bird flu viruses “do not usually infect people,” although last spring the CDC reported the infection of a person in Colorado who had contact with infected poultry. The person reported fatigue and was treated with antiviral medication.
So when will the epidemic end?
“We don’t know,” says Dr. Yuko Sato, a veterinarian at Iowa State University. “Hopefully we’re somewhere in the middle or hopefully near the end,” she says. Sato says killing infected herds has an emotional impact on farmers. “Nobody likes to be, you know, depopulating, euthanizing birds,” she says. Next, egg farmers need to invest in rebuilding their flocks starting with the chicks. “It takes about 16 to 18 weeks for the birds to reach maturity and start laying eggs,” Sato explains. There is therefore a time lag in replenishing egg stocks.
“Our inventory is still down about 5% right now,” says Emily Metz, president of the American Egg Board. But she says farmers are focused on a quick recovery and are continuing to invest in prevention strategies to fight bird flu. “I have farmers who have installed laser light systems to prevent migrating birds from landing on their barns,” she explains. “I have farms that bring their workers by bus to minimize truck traffic” and reduce the risk of contamination. The hope is that these efforts make operations more resilient.
“Egg prices are definitely trending down,” says Metz. “I think there is relief in sight.”