Avian flu is devastating the egg industry across the Midwestern U.S. So far, the virulent strain of H5N2 has been detected at 201 farms in 15 states, triggering the destruction of 44.7 million chickens and turkeys, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Many of the affected farms have what are called "breaker" operations – the eggs are broken right there on the farm and processed to be "liquid eggs."
These liquid, frozen and powdered eggs are used in commercial baking for products like bread, cookies and crackers, as well as in restaurants. And bakers have been getting anxious about dwindling supplies and higher prices.
On Monday, USDA said it would soon allow pasteurized egg imports from the Netherlands.
The trade decision is another emergency measure taken in light of the largest-ever outbreak of avian flu in the U.S.
The American Bakers Association said last week that it was lobbying USDA and Congress, asking to reinstate imports from the Netherlands, the first country in the European Union to be allowed to sell eggs here. Canada is the only other country the U.S. allows for egg imports.
When the outbreak started affecting the liquid egg industry, the market reacted wildly and suppliers began refusing new contracts and limiting sales, forcing many commercial bakers to look elsewhere, said Cory Martin, a lobbyist with the American Bakers Association.
"We were essentially facing a couple choices," Martin says. "One is to shut down lines or shut down production altogether. Nobody wants to do that. Or two, find a substitute for eggs."
Prices for wholesale eggs doubled in May, while prices for shell eggs in grocery stores have also risen. One restaurant chain, Whataburger, has announced that it has pared back breakfast hours because of the egg shortage.
Although John Clifford, the U.S. chief veterinary officer, told Reuters he believes the outbreak will wane by mid-summer, when higher temperatures are predicted to help kill the virus, he still anticipates that some 50 million birds will ultimately be destroyed. Clifford said that he believes "the worst is behind us."
Further down the food chain, companies expect the worst is yet to come, Martin said.
"To us, losing 50 million hens — that's going to make the market react even moreso than it has now and it's going to be incredibly tight," he told Reuters. "It's going to get worse before it gets better."
Commercial bakers, agri-business companies and restaurants also fear that the outbreak could grow larger by the fall when migratory birds once again fly south. The current avian flu outbreak is being blamed on wild birds, although U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has admitted that it could be spreading because of humans.
"There's a very large fear out there and I think the market is reacting to this: that come fall, come next winter, we're all afraid that the flu is going to come back with a vengeance," Martin said.