Red Sea Conflict Has Left 16,000 Farm Animals Stranded. Their Future Remains Uncertain.
Food•6 min read
Wondering why egg prices are skyrocketing? A mix of reasons — avian flu, inflation and shifting demand are all partly to blame.
Words by Grace Hussain
Milk, bread and eggs. For decades, families in the United States have been flocking to grocery stores to buy these three staples. While the cost of milk and bread have seen significant increases in the last year, they don’t come close to matching the dramatic uptick in cost now for a carton of eggs.
At many grocery stores in the U.S., eggs now cost more than double what they did at the beginning of 2022. Avian flu, inflation and shifting demand are all partly to blame for this monumental price increase.
In the week of January 20, 2023 the cost of a dozen eggs in California decreased to $5.97. The average cost of eggs in the United States was $4.25 at the end of 2022. In January 2022, a dozen eggs cost just $1.93. In just one year, the price of a dozen eggs has more than doubled.
Compared to this time last year, egg supply is down by 23 percent. This means that there are only three-quarters of the eggs available right now that there were in January 2022. However, due to dietary shifts, squeezed incomes and other sources of protein being cheaper, the demand for eggs is also lower than it was this time last year.
The current high price tag of a dozen eggs in grocery stores is due to three main factors: chickens being killed by the millions to curb the spread of disease, farmers struggling with inflation, and egg manufacturers keeping prices high.
H5N1, or avian flu, has been sweeping the country since the beginning of 2022. As of January 2023, all but three states have had outbreaks of the disease, and over 57 million poultry birds have been impacted by the virus.
Among these birds are chickens and turkeys being raised for meat, as well as laying hens who are responsible for eggs. At the end of 2022, 43 million laying hens had either died from the virus or been killed via mass depopulation to prevent the spread of the illness. Throughout 2022, the cost of eggs was high but the end of the year saw an additional spike in price, as the demand for eggs went up around the holiday season with families gathering together to bake cookies and other holiday treats.
Pandemics like the avian flu are a result of the animal agriculture industry, which prioritizes profit over animal welfare and safety. Factory farms cram chickens, turkeys, and other birds into small confines, which allows viruses to mutate, spread, and infect easily. This is one reason why animal agriculture is a huge risk factor for future pandemics. As long as chicken farms keep their animals penned together unnaturally, diseases like avian flu will continue to pose a threat.
Despite the mass slaughter of millions of birds due to bird flu, and inflation driving the price of eggs up for consumers, some large-scale egg producers nevertheless reported record profits in 2022, according to farmer-led advocacy group Farm Action. One major egg producer, Cal-Maine, which controls 20 percent of the egg market, reported profits 600 percent higher than the same quarter the year prior.
Farm Action has even called for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the apparent discrepancies to evaluate whether consumers are being illegally price gouged.
Inflation has hit the egg industry hard and amplified the impacts of avian flu on egg prices. In addition to the cost of chicken feed going up considerably over the last few years, the cost of fuel and packaging for the eggs has fluctuated, causing an increase in prices for the consumer.
Inflation isn’t just hitting grocery store shelves; the cost of chicken feed is also going up. One farmer who raises both layer hens and chickens for meat recounts that in about two years the cost of a single pound of feed has gone up by 17 cents, causing him to raise the cost of the eggs he sells by 20 percent.
What Are Other Reasons For High Prices?
The avian flu, inflation, and corporate price gouging were the three largest reasons for a price increase, but there are smaller factors that can also be considered.
There has been some speculation that new laws and corporate commitments surrounding the adoption of cage-free housing systems for layer hens are partially to blame for the high prices of eggs we’re now seeing, but no definitive evidence connecting the new laws with the uptick in prices.
During the fall and winter months, hens will naturally reduce the number of eggs that they lay. For some farmers raising laying hens in a free-range environment in which they have access to the outdoors, this may result in a decrease in the number of eggs laid. However, the vast majority of hens are raised in large warehouses where lights are used to keep their productivity high through the colder months of the year. Because of this light manipulation, the changing seasons likely do not have as large an impact on egg prices as other factors such as inflation and avian flu.
During the 2022 holiday season, the price of eggs was driven upward by an increase in demand due to holiday baking. Normally, farmers raising laying hens would have prepared by synchronizing their flock to lay a high number of eggs at that time. But from September to December 2022, the second major wave of H1N5 of the year was taking place, leading to the culling of entire flocks and decreasing how many eggs were laid and sold.
Certain diets encourage the consumption of a particularly high number of eggs. In the United States roughly 13 million people are following a keto diet. Within the diet, eggs are considered an ideal source of nutrients, meaning that those who have chosen to adopt a keto diet are likely to eat a large number of eggs.
Some might assume that the same would be true of vegetarians, those who don’t eat meat but do consume other animal products. However, data suggests that this assumption is not accurate. One study published in The British Journal of Nutrition in 2014 found that vegetarians consumed about half as many eggs as the average meat eater, whereas a more recent study published in Nutrients in 2017 found that vegetarians consumed only slightly more eggs than their meat-eating counterparts.
Though the first few weeks of the year may increase demand for eggs for many, that demand tends to fade pretty quickly, as was the case this year. The reduction is due to consumers falling off their diets, especially at a time when the cost of eggs is already high due to factors such as avian flu and inflation. Despite a small hump at the beginning of the year, demand for eggs has fallen.
Consumer concern for their own health and the welfare of laying hens has led to the rise of so-called “designer eggs.” These eggs can easily be recognized by their packaging, which is usually a far cry from the styrofoam of yesteryear. Instead these eggs are packaged in plastic or cardboard and sport terms such as “cage free,” “free range,” “organic” and “fortified.”
Because they tend to cost more to produce, these eggs usually cost more than their traditional counterparts. Interestingly, demand for some of these eggs, specifically cage-free eggs, has actually increased since the average cost of eggs has gone up, as they are closer to being at price parity.
Standing in front of the egg display, you’ve likely noticed refrigerated substitutes such as JustEgg and Simply Eggless. Both of these are versatile substitutes that can be easily used just like chicken eggs.
However, the world of egg substitutes doesn’t end there. There are also powdered replacements that can be bought in grocery stores, and kitchen staples such as applesauce and cornstarch that can be added to recipes in the place of eggs. Most of these options are significantly cheaper than chicken eggs yet still provide delicious outcomes.
The cost of eggs is not the only issue that consumers are facing. In many areas, the refrigerators that should house eggs are empty, with supermarkets unable to keep eggs on the shelves. Some supermarkets have implemented a cap on how many cartons a consumer can purchase in their efforts to keep eggs on the shelves.
As of January 2023, egg prices have begun to go down, according to a USDA market report, although they likely won’t be back to pre-inflation prices anytime soon.
The price of eggs has been driven up by a variety of factors, but most notably by inflation and one of the most severe avian flu pandemics in recent history. These factors have caused the price of eggs to go up by more than 100 percent in just one year.
Yet while eggs are now harder to come by and more expensive, there are plenty of affordable alternatives that can be used in their place in your favorite recipes, without sacrificing flavor. When baking, try these 11 vegan egg alternatives, most of which are better for your body and your wallet. You can also check out Just Egg, a cheaper alternative found in most grocery stores. More resources are available on our Take Action page.
Climate•8 min read
Diet•6 min read