For the past week, my breakfast routine has been a mixed bag. I’ve had overnight oats, beans on sourdough, crispy beef, fried rice, and, on one particularly odd morning, leftover cream of broccoli soup. Under normal circumstances, I would eat eggs. But now, I hoard, jealously guarding the remaining four from a carton bought indignantly for six bucks. For that price – 50 cents each! – Daily sunny side up eggs will have to wait. The perfect moment looms: Maybe a piece of toasted brioche calls for a luxuriously soft scramble, or maybe I’ll satisfy a craving for an egg salad sandwich.
Eggs, that quintessential cheap food, have become very, very expensive in the United States. In December, the average price of a dozen eggs in American cities hit an all-time high of $4.25, up from $1.78 a year earlier. Although the worst now seems to be behind us, there are still ways to go before consumer prices reach reasonable levels–and Americans begin to fall apart. Online, the shortage has recently spawned an endless number of memes: In some posts, people pretend to slice eggs into plastic bags, like drug dealers (Pablo Eggscobar, anyone?); Another recurring segment suggests painting potatoes for Easter look. The high prices even fueled the smuggling of eggs and raised the profile of “hen rent” services, where customers could borrow chickens, chicken feed, and coops for a few hundred dollars.
The skyrocketing price of eggs is a fairly familiar story of pandemic-era inflation. Jada Thompson, an agricultural economist at the University of Arkansas, told me it costs more to produce eggs because fuel, transportation, feed, and packaging are now more expensive. And it doesn’t help that there are no good egg substitutes. But the main reason for the price hike right now is avian influenza – a virus that infects many species of birds and is deadly to some. Right now, we’re facing the worst wave ever in the United States; It has decimated chicken flocks and ruined America’s egg stock. Over the past year alone, more than 57 million birds have died from influenza. Some much-needed relief will likely come from higher egg prices, but don’t break out of the soufflé pots just yet. All indications are that bird flu is here to stay. If this rampant spread of the virus continues, “these costs will not drop to pre-2022 levels,” Thompson told me. Cheap eggs may soon be a thing of the past.
This isn’t the first time American egg producers have faced bird flu, but dealing with it remains a challenge. For one thing, the virus is constantly changing. It has long infected but not killed waterfowl and shorebirds, such as ducks and geese, but by 1996, it had mutated into “highly pathogenic” H5N1, a strain deadly to poultry named for bad copies of the “H” and “N” proteins. (They form spikes on the surface of the virus—sound familiar?) In 2014 and 2015, H5N1 ignited terrible outbreaks of bird flu, giving American poultry farmers their first taste of just how bad the egg shortage could be.
But this outbreak is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The strain of bird flu behind this wave is indeed new, and in the United States, the virus has been circulating for a full year now — much longer than it was during the last big outbreak. The virus has become “host-adaptive”, meaning it can infect its natural hosts without killing them; As a result, wild waterfowl are ruthlessly effective at spreading the virus to chickens, Richard Webby, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds, told me.
Many of these wild birds are migratory and, during their long journeys between Canada and South America, descend on waterways and pipe virus from the skies above poultry farms. Chickens don’t stand a chance: the fleshy flaps on their heads may turn blue, their eyes and neck may swell, and in rare cases, paralysis occurs. An entire poultry flock can be wiped out within 48 hours. Death is fast and evil.
Everything about this current wave has aligned to cause a serious dent in our egg supply. Most eggs in the United States are hatched in jam-packed industrial egg farms where transmission is impossible to stop, so the go-to when flu is detected is “depopulation,” the industry’s preferred term for killing all birds. Without such a brutal tactic, the current wave would be much worse, Brian Richards, emerging disease coordinator for the USGS, told me.
But this strategy also means fewer eggs, at least until the new chicks grow into hens. This takes about six months, Thompson said, so there haven’t been enough chickens lately—especially for all those who want to bake for the holidays. By the end of 2022, the egg stock in the United States will be 29 percent lower than it was at the start of the year. Chicken supplies, in contrast, are strong, Thompson said, because avian influenza tends to affect older birds, such as egg layers. At six to eight weeks of age, the birds we eat, known as broilers, are not at risk. She also added that the migration routes of wild birds are not concentrated in the southeast, where most broiler production occurs.
Egg eaters should be able to get back to their usual breakfast routine soon. New hens are now replenishing egg stocks in the United States – while waterfowl overwinter in the warmer climates of South America rather than staying in the United States. Since the holidays, “the price paid to farmers for eggs has dropped rapidly, and the consumer price usually follows over time,” Maru Ibarburu, a business analyst at the Iowa State University Egg Industry Center, tells me.
However, moving forward, it may be worth rethinking our relationship to white people. There is no guarantee that eggs will return to being one of the cheapest and most nutritious foods around. When the weather warms up, the birds will return, and “it’s very likely that on the spring migration we could see another wave,” said Richards. Europe, which experienced an H5N1 wave about six months before the Americas, offers a glimpse into the future. “They’ve gone from a situation where the virus comes and goes to a situation where it comes and stays,” Webby told me. If we’re lucky, though, the birds will develop natural immunity to the virus, making it more difficult to spread, or the United States could begin vaccinating poultry against the flu, which the country has been reluctant to do so far.
Omelette aside, limiting the spread of bird flu is in our best interest, not only to help prevent the $6 egg carton, but also to avoid an even scarier possibility: spreading the virus and infecting people. Webby noted that all influenza A viruses are of avian origin. The scary example is the H1N1 strain behind the 1918 influenza pandemic. Fortunately, although some people were infected with the H5N1 virus, very few cases of the virus spreading between humans have been documented. But continued transmission, over a long enough period, could change that. The fact that the virus has recently jumped from birds to mammals, such as seals and bears, and is spreading among mink is concerning, as this means it is evolving to infect species most closely related to us. The danger of this particular virus [spreading among humans] Where it’s low now, but the consequences could be high,” Webby said. “If there’s a flu virus I don’t want to catch, that would be the virus.”
More than anything, the egg shortage is a reminder that food availability is not something we can take for granted moving forward. Shortages of basic commodities appear to be more regular not only due to disrupted supply chains linked to the pandemic and inflation, but also to animal and plant diseases. In 2019, swine fever decimated pork supplies in China; The constant lettuce shortage, which rapper Cardi B bemoaned earlier this month, is the result of a plant virus and disease in the soil. Last September, citrus growers in California discovered a virus known for its ability to reduce crop yields. By creating more comfortable conditions for some diseases, climate change is expected to increase the risk of infection for both animals and plants. And as COVID has shown, any situation in which different species are forced to live in unnaturally close quarters to each other is likely to encourage the spread of disease.
Getting used to intermittent shortages of staple foods like eggs and lettuce will likely become a normal part of meal planning, preventing a major shift away from industrial agriculture and its tendency to promote disease. These farms are the main reason why some foods are so inexpensive and widely available in the first place; If cheap eggs sound too good to be true, that’s because they were. Besides, there are always alternatives: May I suggest cream of broccoli soup?