When will egg prices finally go down?

A few months ago, I asked Vox readers what price increases bothered them most amid our current economic environment of high inflation. The most common answer, far and away, was eggs — a relatively small-ticket item, but a staple, and one whose price hikes were annoying as hell to many consumers. That was back in August 2022. Now, the egg price situation is even worse.

According to data provided by Urner Barry, which follows the food commodity market, the average price on a dozen “Midwest large” eggs was up to $5.46 as of late December 2022, well above the $0.89 it was at at the start of 2020, before the pandemic hit, and even above other highs in the low $3 range last summer. Following the peak egg demand that comes with the holiday season, prices have started to cool off, falling back to $3.64 as of January 17.

“There is almost invariably a drop in demand after the holiday baking period, which, in turn, causes wholesale prices to drop,” said Karyn Rispoli, who covers the egg market for Urner Barry, in an email. “This year’s decline has been rather sharp though because of the heights from which the market is adjusting.”

Still, the egg prices many people are seeing at the grocery store are eye-popping. And in some parts of the country, such as California, eggs are extra pricey and in some cases, hard to find.

Eggs have been part of the US economy’s inflation story for months. Beyond the cost of one individual egg at the store, you also have to remember that eggs are an ingredient in so many items, from pet food to baked goods and beyond. So when the cost of eggs rises, that can put pressure on a lot of things.

So what’s going on right now? Here’s a little rundown.

The bird flu is bad

Eggs are mainly extra expensive right now because chickens keep getting sick from a super deadly avian influenza, largely spread by wild birds migrating. The last time the bird flu hit so strong, in 2015, it sent egg prices soaring. Now, that’s happening again, and it’s proving more persistent than last time around.

“In 2015, the virus kind of stopped once the weather got hot and the spring migration finished, and the repopulation was fully able to get going. [In 2022], it’s come back in the fall with the winter migration,” said Brian Moscogiuri, a global trade strategist at Eggs Unlimited.

As of early December, there were about 308 million “layers,” meaning hens laying eggs for consumption, in the US. That’s down from 328 million the year prior. “Typically, you need about one bird per person to have a close-to-balanced supply and demand with US consumption,” Moscogiuri said. “So we have, what, 331 million people in this country? You can see right there, there’s a huge shortfall.”

As Vox’s Kenny Torrella explained, nearly 58 million birds in the US, most of them egg-laying hens, have died from the bird flu over the past year, well above the previous record of 50 million from 2015. Once a farm or facility is infected with the virus, it spreads like wildfire and is almost always deadly. Regardless, US regulations require farmers to depopulate their operations once bird flu is detected, meaning the birds with and without the virus have to be killed off.

“They have to clean and disinfect the entire facility, and then they have to test [the facility] in order to repopulate [to make sure the virus is cleared],” Moscogiuri said. Egg producers have gotten better at repopulation, having learned from experience in 2015, but as mentioned, the current outbreak is much more persistent than the last.

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