Current high egg prices are likely to continue, as the nation’s flock of egg-laying hens is at its smallest since 2004 thanks to the massive outbreak of avian influenza this spring.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official numbers show nationally egg production dropped five percent in May compared to May 2014. But in Iowa, the nation’s largest egg producer and the state whose hens took the hardest hit from the flu, the figure is 28 percent.
The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Upper Midwest Region used a graph in its Iowa report that shows just how precipitously the number of egg-laying hens in the state fell last month. The red line charting April and May of this year drops off a cliff.
Greg Thessen, director of the regional office, said the change is significant though not surprising.
“If we wouldn’t have known that there was a disease outbreak, obviously it would have been pretty stunning,” Thessen said. “But it hasn’t been a secret that there’s been a disease outbreak. So we pretty much knew that it was coming.”
What’s not known is how long the flu outbreak will persist, though new infections have slowed dramatically in June.
The impacts thus far, and the fear of what could happen if infection numbers surge again in late summer or fall, have triggered a variety of responses.
- Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has asked for a federal disaster declaration for the four counties that suffered the greatest losses, primarily to increase the amount of unemployment assistance available to those who work in the poultry industry;
- Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is pointing to the outbreak in an attempt to prevent funding cuts for research at USDA;
- USDA and state officials are meeting with the poultry industry and international representatives this week to discuss strategies for managing avian flu risk;
- Restaurants have curbed breakfast menus and begun using egg substitutes as the price of eggs has soared.
Ironically, supplies of frozen chicken are robust right now, because some countries have limited poultry imports from the United States, flooding the domestic market, and most areas that grow broilers have not been infected. That could bring down chicken prices. With cheap meat and expensive eggs, one might again question which comes first.