Buyers in Golden State are paying extreme prices for eggs, amid an outbreak of bird flu that has killed millions of hens and left local grocers struggling to stock cartons that comply with California law.
“I literally came from another store because they were out,” said Princess Hodges, 23, who managed to grab an 18-pack at Food4Less in West Adams after attacking a nearby Ralphs. “I was extremely surprised, because it’s a staple.”
Egg crates were bare in Los Angeles County this week, from Trader Joe’s in Long Beach to Amazon Fresh in Inglewood, Target in MidCity to Ralphs in Glendale. Those like Hodges who found cartons were shocked by the sudden price spike.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Anna Sanchez, 32, who scoured the half-empty shelves of a Smart & Final in University Park in search of a dozen eggs for less than $10. “The cheapest ones just aren’t there.”
The average retail price for a dozen large eggs jumped to $7.37 in California this week, from $4.83 in early December and just $2.35 at the same time last year, data from the US Department of Agriculture.
The cause is an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic bird flu – commonly known as bird flu – which has killed tens of millions of layers nationwide. Among those are millions of cage-free hens that California relies on to comply with Proposition 12, the 2018 animal welfare initiative that went into effect last year.
The resulting shortages and price increases have hit the poorest Californians hard, gobbling up food bank inventory and pinching families dependent on federal programs with strict purchasing guidelines. And they were only exacerbated in the new year, as new cage-free mandates in other states go into effect and demand continues to outstrip supply.
“They must have killed 50 million chickens, and [many of those] lay without a cage,” said Rami Rosenthal, director of Toby Egg Farms, a Los Angeles egg wholesaler. “The other reason is that California voted to have [only] cage-free eggs, but California doesn’t have enough.
More than 57 million chickens and turkeys have died or been culled since the outbreak began last February, including nearly 4 million laying hens in December alone. Of the roughly 40 million hens lost nationwide since the outbreak began, more than 5 million were non-cage layers, according to USDA data.
Although cageless hens are somewhat more likely to come into contact with wild birds that infect flocks with bird flu, their enclosure their counterparts can more easily spread the disease once it reaches a farm. So far, both types of birds have been struck down by the virus at similar rates.
“The current outbreak has affected all types of farms, regardless of size or style of production,” a USDA spokeswoman wrote in an email.
The difference is that cage-free flocks only make up about 30% of the US egg market.
Admittedly, the number of non-cage layers has increased rapidly in recent years. Herds roughly doubled between November 2018, when Proposition 12 was passed, and January 2022, when the law went into effect. California layers now number nearly 14 million, and they have so far been spared the outbreak.
“Fortunately, our California egg industry has avoided all bird flu in commercial flocks,” California Poultry Federation president Bill Mattos wrote in an email. “Their biosecurity is exceptional, and companies here work very hard to keep wild birds out of facilities and farms across the state.”
But demand has grown much faster than cage-free herds. Since Proposition 12 was passed, at least six other states have voted to ban the sale of conventional eggs. Three of those bans are now in effect, including in Colorado and Washington, where conventional eggs were banned on January 1.
This means that between this week and last, nearly 14 million more Americans have started vying for an already scarce commodity.
“All of a sudden the eggs came out,” said Glen Curado, founder of the World Harvest food bank in Arlington Heights, which serves between 100 and 200 families a day. “From three to four packs, we came across just one.”
Meanwhile, more and more families are heading to the food bank, where volunteers dressed as Three Kings handed out free toys and a dozen shoppers filled carts with fresh produce, frozen meat and loaves of bread early Friday afternoon.
Most of the produce was on display for the taking. But the eggs had been rationed into small plastic bags in the back.
“We used to give away a two-and-a-half-dozen apartment,” Curado explained. “Now, since we are weak, each family gets six eggs.”
Inflation in basic foodstuffs such as milk and flour has weighed on poor families for months. But the current egg shortage has been especially difficult for families who depend on the special federal program of Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.
WIC covers eggs for one million low-income expectant parents, new families, and children under age 5 in California.
But only a carton of a dozen large white eggs can be purchased with WIC vouchers. As it is usually the cheapest product, it is now almost impossible to find. Brown, medium, organic, 18-packs — all of these are off-limits to WIC shoppers, even when store shelves are otherwise empty.
“It’s the same as with [baby] formula — they have to buy specific ounces, specific grams,” said Gloria Martinez of the Mother’s Nutritional Center, a Southern California chain specializing in WIC foods.
WIC pays for 50% of infant formula sold in the United States. Still, strict size and brand restrictions prevented recipients from buying the few boxes that could be found at the height of the shortage last year.
Now the same thing is starting to happen with eggs, experts fear.
“They would come in and the eggs [covered by WIC] are not in stock,” Martinez said. “People come in saying they’re out of eggs, they’re out of formula. Especially because of the price of gasoline, it is difficult to go around the shops.
Indeed, while the sudden spike in egg prices is not in itself a product of inflation, inflation has severely limited the ability of many families to seek out a bargain or shell out for alternatives.
It also puts pressure on food companies who cannot pass on more costs to thin consumers.
“Small businesses especially, you live and die by your food costs,” said Tracy Ann Devore, owner of KnowRealityPie in Eagle Rock, who recently ditched a dishwasher to stem rising costs. “If this continues for another three to six months, it could be a tipping point for some bakeries to close.”
For Devore and many others, the new egg crisis, combined with the uncertainty of when it might ebb, has been more troubling than the gradual spike in dairy, flour and produce prices.
“At some point, you can’t raise the price anymore,” Devore said. “There have been times when I have cried recently, because I was like, ‘How are we going to continue with this?'”
For grocers like Sanchez, the response has been to simply wait and hope prices drop.
Rosenthal, the wholesaler, said it might take some time.
“They have to replace the hens, and they don’t start laying overnight,” he said. “There won’t be an end to this for another seven or eight months.”