Rising US egg prices put pressure on consumers, companies
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – Chickens may not be able to fly very far, but the price of eggs is sky high.
A prolonged outbreak of bird flu, combined with skyrocketing feed, fuel and labor costs, has caused US egg prices to more than double over the past year and has spawned a lot of sticker shock in the grocery aisles.
The national average price for a dozen eggs hit $3.59 in November, up from $1.72 a year earlier, according to the latest government data. That puts pressure on consumer budgets and the bottom lines of restaurants, bakeries and other food producers that rely heavily on eggs.
Merchant prices there was an increase of 12% in November, running higher inflation, although the overall pace of price increases slowed down a bit through the autumn as gas prices fell.
But egg prices have risen significantly more than other foods – even more than chicken or turkey – because egg farmers were hit harder by bird flu. More than 43 million of the 58 million birds slaughtered over the past year to control the virus have been laying chickens, including some farms with more than a million birds each in major egg-producing states like Iowa.
Anyone approaching the egg case at a Hy-Vee grocer in Omaha “has a sour face,” said shopper Nancy Stom.
But even with the cost increases, eggs remain relatively cheap compared to the price of other proteins like chicken or beef, with a pound of chicken breast averaging $4.42 in November and a pound of ground beef selling for $4.85, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It’s still a cheap meal,” Stom said. But the 70-year-old said that at these prices, she will keep an eye on her eggs in the fridge and try not to let them go bad before they are used.
If prices stay this high, Kelly Fischer said she will start thinking more seriously about building a chicken farm in Chicago because everyone in her family eats eggs.
“We (with neighbours) are thinking of building a hen house behind our houses, so in the end I hope not to buy them and get my own eggs, and I think the cost comes into it a little bit,” said the 46-year-old elementary school teacher. while shopping at HarvestsTime Foods on the city’s north side. “For me, it’s more about the environmental impact and trying to buy local.”
In some places, it can even be difficult to find eggs on the shelves. But egg supplies are generally holding up because the total flock has declined only about 5% from its normal size of about 320 million hens. Farmers have been working to replace their herds as quickly as possible after an outbreak.
Jakob Werner, 18, said he tries to find the cheapest eggs he can because he eats five or six of them a day while trying to gain weight and build muscle.
“For a while I just stopped eating eggs when they became more expensive. But since they’re my favorite food, I eventually came back to them,” said Werner, who lives in Chicago. “So I think for a few months I just stopped eating eggs, waited for the price to drop. It never did. So now I’m buying again.”
Purdue University agricultural economist Jayson Lusk said he believes outbreak of bird flu is the biggest driver of price increases. Unlike previous years, the virus lingered throughout the summer and made a resurgence last fall infects egg and poultry farms.
“Bird flu is not the only factor, but in my opinion it is the main driver of what we are experiencing at the moment,” Lusk said.
But the president and CEO of the American Egg Board trade group, Emily Metz, said she believes all the cost increases farmers have faced in the past year were a bigger factor in the price increases than bird flu.
“When you look at fuel costs going up and you look at feed costs going up as much as 60%, labor costs, packaging costs — all of that … those are much, much bigger factors than bird flu for sure,” Metz said.
Jada Thomson, an agricultural economist at the University of Arkansas, said there could be some easing in egg prices in the next few months because egg farmers have been steadily replacing their flocks lost to bird flu last year and demand will ease a bit now that people have finished their holiday baking.
But she said avian flu remains a wild card that could still drive prices higher if there are major outbreaks at egg farms.
Farmers are do everything they can to limit its spread, but the disease is easily spread by migrating wild birds, and the virus can be picked up on clothing or vehicles.
“But there are some things that are just out of our control,” Thompson said. “You can’t control nature sometimes.”
Food manufacturers and restaurants are suffering because it is difficult to find a good substitute for eggs in their recipes.
Any drop in egg prices would be welcome at Patti Stobaugh’s two restaurants and two bakeries in Conway and Russelville, Arkansas, because all her ingredients and supplies are more expensive these days. For some of her baked goods, Stobaugh has switched to a frozen egg product that isn’t quite as expensive, but she still buys eggs for all the breakfasts she serves.
A case of 15 dozen eggs has gone from $36 to $86 over the past year, but the flour, butter, chicken and everything else she buys is also more expensive. Stobaugh said it makes her “hyper-vigilant about every little object.”
She has already raised her prices by 8% in the past year, and may have to raise them again soon. It’s a delicate balance between trying not to make it too expensive for people to eat out and hurting sales, but she doesn’t have much choice as she tries to support her 175 employees.
“We have a lot of employees that work for us and we’re responsible for making payroll every week and providing for their families. We take that very seriously. But it’s definitely been tough,” Stobaugh said.