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Plenty of eggs, although pricey, as bird flu hits more farms

Nearly 5% of the egg-laying hens in the United States have died in outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the past six weeks, said USDA data on Wednesday. Egg prices were rising faster than the overall rate of food inflation, though there was an ample supply ahead of Easter and Passover.

More than 27 million birds in domestic flocks, mostly chickens and turkeys, have died from HPAI or in cullings of infected flocks this year. Some 18.7 million of them were laying hens. The latest losses were nearly 2 million layers on farms in central Minnesota and northeastern Nebraska.

Wholesale prices for a dozen large eggs in the Midwest this week were nearly triple their price of a year ago, according to market analysis company Urner Barry, reported Axios.

“What we can say is that the inventory of eggs in the grocery store for your Easter and Passover celebrations remains high,” said economist Veronica Nigh of the American Farm Bureau Federation in a blog. “The drawback — you’ll have to pay more for them.”

The high price of eggs “suggests that the market doesn’t necessarily believe the [poultry] industry has HPAI contained quite yet,” wrote Nigh.

Before HPAI was detected on egg farms in early March, there were 390 million hens in the U.S. laying flock. The loss of 18.7 million hens would equal 4.8% of the U.S. total. Outbreaks of “high path” bird flu began a month earlier, on February 8, among turkey, broiler chicken, and backyard flocks.

More than 50 million birds died in the 2014-15 HPAI epidemic, “arguably the most significant animal health event in U.S. history,” according to a USDA analysis. The losses included 43 million laying hens and pullets, which are hens yet to lay eggs, and 7.4 million turkeys. Some stores ran low on eggs during the epidemic.

The final outbreak of the 211 recorded on commercial operations during the bird flu epidemic was on June 16, 2015. HPAI is often spread by migratory birds, and cases subside with the arrival of warm weather and the end of migration season.

Two-thirds, or roughly 120, of this year’s outbreaks have been in commercial flocks. “Significant detections of HPAI in commercial flocks started about five weeks earlier in 2022, and they have risen more quickly than in 2015,” wrote Nigh. If mid-June is the likely end point, “we potentially have a long way to go.”

In its monthly report on inflation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said on Tuesday that food prices rose 8.8% in the 12 months ending in March but that egg prices were 11.2% higher.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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