By now we’ve all felt the effects of the latest Avian Influenza, or bird flu, pandemic. The cost of a dozen eggs has more than doubled from a national average of $1.78 in December 2021 to $4.88 in December 2022. This current iteration of bird flu is the deadliest on record, surpassing the previous high of 50 million bird deaths in 2015 by 8 million at the time of writing.
Egg production companies have responded to these historic losses with historic price increases, prompting criticism from farmer advocacy groups like Farm Action. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission chair, the group accuses industry dominating companies of “price gouging” and “price collusion.” The letter argues that a substantial loss of chickens does not justify a sharp price increase on eggs, as “the average size of the egg-laying flock in any given month of 2022 was never more than 7-8 percent lower than it was a year prior” and even these losses were “blunted by ‘record-high’ lay rates.”
Wholesale prices for a dozen eggs were $1.73 at the end of February 2022 but had shot up to $4.50 in the beginning of December. During this time, Cal-Maine Foods, the largest egg distributor in the industry controlling 20 percent of the market, reported a five-fold increase in profit margins. By contrast, the 2015 bird flu killed more egg-laying hens but egg prices only increased from $1.29 to $2.61.
Farm Action does not mince words in their letter, calling these price increases “organized theft” and urging the FTC to “open an investigation into the egg industry, prosecute any violations of the antitrust laws it finds within, and ultimately, get the American people their money back.” But the American Egg Board denies these accusations of price gouging, saying it’s simply a matter of economics: “Eggs are bought and sold on the commodity market, where farmers don’t set the price of eggs — the market does.”
Egg prices aren’t the only fear on people’s minds as this strain of bird flu has led to the first documented case of mammal-to-mammal transmission, a development that has some worried about the possibility of human-to-human infection. What has scientists worried is an incident at a mink farm in the Galicia region of Spain, where the captive mink tested positive for bird flu. No workers at the farm contracted the virus but the fact that it mutated to spread between mammals alarmed scientists. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London said the virus’ mutation was “incredibly concerning” and “a clear mechanism for an H5 pandemic to start.”
Other scientists are hesitant to sound the alarm. Thijs Kuiken, a veterinary pathologist at Erasmus University Medical Center, based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, notes that most mammalian cases of bird flu are from predators feeding off infected carcasses and that this mink farm was exceptional due to the nature of several predators being kept in close quarters with one another. He says, “It’s a human construct.” The CDC is currently developing a bird flu vaccine in the unlikely event of widespread human transmission.
The good news is that bird flu has always been seasonally predictable, peaking around February and then slowly fizzling out as the year goes on. The worst is already behind us, and New Mexico only recorded 40 infected birds in total. Here’s hoping egg prices come down alongside new case numbers.