While some worried consumers may abstain from dyeing and hiding eggs this Easter, the overall egg supply chain appears to be on the mend from the avian bird flu crisis.
Nearly 59 million poultry flocks have been culled because of the outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that began last year, according to the CDC. Ahead of the holiday on April 9, egg prices are poised to moderate as the U.S. egg-laying hen flock is rebuilt, said Kevin Bergquist, sector manager at Wells Fargo’s Agri-Food Institute.
While year-over-year inventory for the birds is 15 to 20% lower than last year, it is slowly regrowing, increasing 1% in February, according to USDA data quoted by Urner Barry and shared by Wells Fargo.
“Holiday seasonal demand is one factor behind rising prices in the market, which have been increasing again before Easter, but the volume of egg movement is beginning to slow, meaning that the market could be finding a point of balance,” Bergquist said in an emailed statement.
Egg prices fell 6.7% in February after months of increases, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, with the cost of a dozen grade A eggs costing roughly $4.21. USDA Chief Economist Seth Meyer projected this year egg prices will fall 26.8% and production of the protein will increase 4%, Reuters reported.
Bird flu and other lingering questions
Egg-flation, driven by the HPAI outbreak, stoked fears among producers because of the many unknowns associated with the virus, and there are still lingering concerns.
Some experts fear this year’s migration season, which ends in May, could further the spread of HPAI — or cause the virus to mutate — from wild waterfowl to vulnerable commercial poultry and egg-laying hen flocks. The Biden administration has said it is testing a vaccine for poultry and may inoculate commercial flocks, which egg producers are more in favor of than the broiler chicken industry.
Maurice Pitesky, a poultry health professor at University of California, Davis, told Food Dive earlier this month that a large vaccination program for birds would be a difficult task. “We have to figure out how to thread that needle and think about how much vaccine we can feasibly produce,” he said.
Adoption of cage-free egg production, which at least nine states have passed laws to enforce by 2024 or 2025, may take longer as producers work to rebuild from the HPAI crisis.
Some of the biggest questions for producers come from analyzing how the virus fared last year and trying to predict if it will be as widespread, Bergquist said. They are not sure whether the virus will fade as temperatures rise in the summer — which did not occur as it typically does in 2022 — or whether stakeholders will be able to halt birds from being vaccinated, the agricultural expert said.
So far in 2023, there have only been 17 confirmed cases among commercial flocks, none of which were egg-laying hens, according to USDA data.
Still, Bergquist said, producers are maintaining a high level of caution. “Egg producers are maintaining a high degree of awareness and diligence around farm biosecurity,” he said. “This can only help reduce HPAI infections but may not be totally preventative.”
How consumers are reacting to price hikes
While higher demand ahead of Easter is contributing to increased prices for eggs, Bergquist said, this uptick happens in the weeks preceding the holiday each year.
But purchasing volume of the protein in 2023 remains lower than usual. Based on Nielsen retail grocer data shared with Food Dive, year-over-year volume of egg sales declined 5.7% in January and 4.3% in February, following higher than average prices.
When asked, consumers surveyed are almost universally cognizant of the elevated prices and are making purchasing decisions accordingly. Nearly 57% of consumers said egg prices will impact their Easter celebration this year, according to data compiled by the advocacy website PissedConsumer.com.
“The rapid price gouging on eggs might have a lasting impact on consumers’ shopping habits,” the website’s CEO Michael Podolsky said in an email.
Egg prices are having a cascading impact across different retailers. Dollar Tree announced this month the chain would stop selling eggs until later this year because of the high costs.