This Won’t Be the Last Egg Famine

Over the past week, my breakfast routine has been mixed. I ate overnight oats, sourdough beans, corned beef and fried rice, and one particularly odd morning, leftover broccoli cream soup. Under normal circumstances, I would be eating eggs. But right now I’m in stacking mode, jealously guarding the four leftovers from a carton I bought for six bucks in anger. For that price—50 cents each!—my daily sunny-side-up eggs will have to wait. The perfect moment is calling: Maybe a fried brioche slab will require a luxurious soft scramble, or maybe I’ll have a strong craving for an egg salad sandwich.

Eggs, that perfect cheap food, have become very, very expensive in the United States. In December, the average price of a dozen eggs in US cities rose from $1.78 a year ago to an all-time high of $4.25. Now that the worst seems to be over, there is still a long way to go before consumer prices are reasonable, and now Americans are starting to crack. Online, famine has spawned endless memes lately: In some posts, people are like drug dealers (Pablo Eggscobar, anyone?); Another recurring piece suggests dyeing potatoes for Easter hunting. High prices have even led to egg smuggling, raising the profile of “chicken rental” services, where customers can borrow chicken, chicken feed, and poultry for several hundred dollars.

Rising egg prices are partly a familiar story of pandemic-era inflation. Jada Thompson, an agricultural economist at the University of Arkansas, told me that it costs more to produce eggs because fuel, transportation, feed and packaging are now more expensive. And it doesn’t help that there isn’t anything great to replace the eggs with. But the biggest reason prices are so high right now is bird flu, a virus that affects many bird species and is deadly for some. We are currently facing the worst wave in the United States that is destroying chicken flocks and crashing America’s egg inventory. More than 57 million birds died from the flu in the last year. There’s some much-needed relief coming from the very high egg prices, but don’t blow your souffle pans out just yet. All signs suggest that bird flu is persistent. If such widespread spread of the virus continues, “these costs will not drop to pre-2022 levels,” Thompson said. Cheap eggs may soon be a thing of the past.

This isn’t the first time American egg producers have encountered bird flu, but it’s still difficult to deal with. First, the virus keeps changing. It infected but did not kill waterfowl and shorebirds such as ducks and geese for a long time, but in 1996 it mutated into “highly pathogenic” H5N1, a poultry-killing strain called nasty versions of “H” and “H”. “N” proteins. (They create thorns on the surface of the virus; does it sound familiar?) In 2014 and 2015, H5N1 sparked a devastating avian flu epidemic, giving US poultry farmers a first taste of how bad egg shortages can be.

But this epidemic is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The type of bird flu behind this wave is truly new, and the virus has been circulating in the US for a full year – much longer than the last major outbreak. Richard Webby, director of the World Health Organization Collaborative Center for Research, says the virus has become “host-adapted”, meaning it can infect its natural hosts without killing them, so wild waterfowl are relentlessly effective at spreading the virus to chickens. Flu Ecology in Animals and Birds told me.

Many of these wild birds are migratory and during their long journey between Canada and South America they land on waterways and poop viruses from the sky over poultry farms. Chickens don’t stand a chance: The fleshy wings on their heads may turn blue, their eyes and necks may swell, and in rare cases, paralysis may occur. An entire flock of poultry can be destroyed in 48 hours. Death is swift and cruel.

Everything about this current surge aligned to put a serious dent in our egg supply. Most eggs in the United States are hatched in congested industrial egg farms where it is nearly impossible to stop contamination, so the first action when flu is detected is “inpopulation,” the industry term of choice for killing all. birds. Bryan Richards, coordinator of emerging diseases at the US Geological Survey, said that without such a brutal tactic, the current wave would be much worse.

But this strategy also means fewer eggs, at least until the new chicks have grown. That takes about six months, so there haven’t been enough chickens lately—especially for all the vacation people want to take, Thompson said. At the end of 2022, the US egg stock was 29 percent lower than at the beginning of the year. Thompson said the chicken supply is strong as avian flu tends to affect older birds such as egg layers; At six to eight weeks old, the birds we eat, known as broilers, are not so sensitive. He also added that wild bird migration routes are not as concentrated in the Southeast, where most broiler production takes place.

Egg eaters should be able to return to their normal breakfast routine before long. As waterfowl overwinter in the warmer climates of South America instead of lingering in the U.S., new chickens are now replenishing the U.S. egg supply Since the holidays, “the price paid to farmers for eggs quickly and often over time,” said Maro, a business analyst at Iowa State University’s Egg Industry Center. Ibarburu follows the consumer price for me,” he said.

Going forward though, it may be worth rethinking our relationship with eggs. There is no guarantee that eggs will become one of the cheapest and most nutritious foods again. The birds will return when the weather warms up, and “it’s very likely we’ll see another wave following the spring migration,” Richards said. Having experienced the H5N1 wave about six months before the United States, Europe provides an insight into the future. “They went from a place where the virus comes and goes, where it essentially comes and stays,” Webby told me. If we’re lucky though, the birds will develop natural immunity to the virus, making it harder to spread, or the US may start vaccinating poultry against the flu, which the country has been reluctant to do until now.

Omelets aside, it’s in our interest to contain the spread of bird flu, not only to help prevent $6 egg cartons, but also to avoid the far more frightening prospect of the virus spreading and infecting people. Webby noted that all viruses from the influenza-A family are of avian origin; A chilling example is the H1N1 strain behind the 1918 flu epidemic. Fortunately, very few cases of human-to-human transmission have been documented, although some people have been infected with H5N1. However, transmission that continues for a sufficiently long time can change this. The recent jump of the virus from birds to mammals such as seals and bears and its spread among mink is worrying because it means it has evolved to infect species closer to us. “The risk of this particular virus [spreading among humans] currently low, but potentially high,” Webby said. “If there was one flu virus I didn’t want to catch, this would be it.”

More than anything else, the shortage of eggs is a reminder that food availability is not something we can take lightly going forward. A shortage of essential goods appears to be more regularly conspicuous, not only because of the disrupted supply chains and inflation associated with the epidemic, but also because of animal and plant diseases. In 2019, swine fever reduced China’s pork supply; The ongoing lettuce shortage, which rapper Cardi B complained about earlier this month, is caused by both a plant virus and a soil disease. Last September, California citrus growers identified a virus known to reduce crop yields. Climate change is expected to create more favorable conditions for some diseases, increasing the risk of infection for both animals and plants. And as COVID has shown, any situation where different species are forced to live abnormally close to each other will likely encourage the spread of the disease.

Adapting to the intermittent shortage of staple foods such as eggs and lettuce will likely become a normal part of meal planning and prevent a major departure from industrial farming and its propensity to develop disease. These farms are the main reason why these foods are so cheap and, above all, widely available; If cheap eggs look too good to be true, it’s because they’re real. Also, there are always alternatives: May I suggest cream of broccoli soup?