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Avian flu has spread to 27 states, sharply driving up egg prices

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/16/2022 Laura Reiley
An egg farm in Wisconsin, where avian influenza was found. © Scott Olson/Getty Images An egg farm in Wisconsin, where avian influenza was found.

The price of eggs has soared in recent weeks in part because of a huge bird flu wave that has infected nearly 27 million chickens and turkeys in the United States, forcing many farmers to “depopulate” or destroy their animals to prevent a further spread.

The virus has impacted many different bird species, including penguins and bald eagles. But its spread among poultry has been tremendous, particularly among chickens raised for their eggs.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced yet another outbreak, this one in two flocks in Idaho, making that the 27th state in which the virus has been found since February.

According to the USDA, the price of a dozen eggs in November hovered around $1. Right now, that price is $2.95 and rising.

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The illness affects commercial birds, hobbyists’ backyard chicken flocks and wild birds, and is spread via secretions and leads to paralysis, swelling and diminished egg production. There have been no human cases of these avian influenza viruses detected in the United States.

So far, about 1.3 percent of all U.S. chickens have been affected in this outbreak and about 6 percent of the U.S. turkey flock, said Grady Ferguson, senior research analyst for Gro Intelligence, an agriculture data platform.

Ferguson tracked the last major outbreak of bird flu in 2015, saying that this outbreak has the potential to be more significant and disruptive to the poultry and egg markets. During the last epidemic, at this point in the outbreak, 66 days after first detection, the percentage of total chickens affected was .02 percent, ultimately climbing to around 2.5 percent of chickens infected and 50 million birds destroyed.

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“We are above and beyond the rate of spread we saw in 2015,” Ferguson said. “Last time, 81 percent of the cases were in the fourth and fifth month, as things exploded. What chicken egg prices did last time affected the market for years. We are two months into the outbreak now, and the safety protocols haven’t worked. I don’t want to be a Chicken Little, but I think it’s going to be worse than last time.”

He said in addition to higher prices for a carton of a dozen eggs, consumers “will see higher prices for all baked goods and a wide variety of processed foods from cupcakes to salad dressing. Restaurants are going to have a harder time justifying why they should give you a three-egg omelet for a dollar. And on the chicken meat side, the situation is also worse this time than it was last time.”

Cage-free chickens in Iowa. © Charlie Neibergall/AP Cage-free chickens in Iowa.

The majority of birds that had to be destroyed last time were laying hens and pullets (these are sexually immature birds that will be layers) and very few broilers (the birds consumers eat) were affected, Ferguson said. Thus far in this outbreak, 9 percent of affected animals are broiler chickens, he said, which will lead to already-high prices for chicken going even higher.

Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, said that chicken farmers are “doubling and tripling down” on biosecurity at chicken farms, adding protocols like showers for workers as they enter and exit a facility, and antiseptic tire baths for trucks so that infection isn’t moved from one facility to another.

Super said that avian flu will add to the cost of chicken, but that it just one of several price pressures right now. He lists higher feed costs for animals, higher fuel costs for transporting animals and even the Biden administration’s decision to allow higher levels of ethanol in gasoline, which further drives up the price of corn and soy essential for animal feed.

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Emily Metz, president of the American Egg Board, said that about 5 percent of laying hen flocks have been affected so far, but that she is more optimistic about the trajectory of this outbreak.

“The bottom like is we started a little bit earlier than we did in 2015 [with biosecurity protocols],” she said. “We learned some tough lessons in 2015, that our biosecurity wasn’t where it needed to be. We’ve invested in huge changes.”

She described high-tech new protocols such as laser light systems to ward off migratory birds to prevent them from landing on the farmland or buildings. And while she admits prices are rising, she points to farmers’ input costs as a greater factor than the specter of avian flu.

“It is alarming, and I share in the concern about affordability. But eggs are still one of the most affordable proteins, bar none,” she said.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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