An egg shortage is causing empty shelves in Colorado grocery stores

Colorado shoppers out hunting for eggs often find shelves empty or taken, as both bird flu and a new state law destabilize grocers’ supply chains.

Scott Scarborough, owner and head farmer of City Farm LLC in Montrose, blames the shortage of highly pathogenic avian influenza, a highly contagious virus that can kill poultry.

He also pointed to a new state law requiring all eggs sold in grocery stores and produced on Colorado farms to be cage-free. As demand for cage-free eggs has skyrocketed since the mandate went into effect Jan. 1, “it just adds to the problem,” Scarborough said, using free-range and pasture-raised approaches. “There aren’t that many people doing cage-free eggs.”

Last week saw empty store shelves in the Western Slope community of Scarborough. Grocers with eggs in stock have limited the amount customers can buy.

He predicted tight supply could continue until 2023. “It’s not going to get much better next year.”

Why is the country’s egg supply tight? Am I paying more for eggs?

Since February, flocks of chickens across the country have been suffering from bird flu.

As a result, nearly 40 million chickens died or were euthanized — a 5% drop in flock numbers last November compared to the same month in 2021, according to the USDA. Over the past year, the agency has confirmed cases of the virus in 46 states, including Colorado.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service first discovered the statewide presence of the non-commercial backyard herd in Pitkin County in April. State officials quarantined and euthanized the birds, according to the USDA.

Mike Tomko, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, cited Colorado as “one of the hardest hit states” by the virus, particularly on the egg front.

“A total of more than 6 million birds were affected in 2022, with the most recent commercial detection in Colorado affecting 1.3 million table egg layers in December,” Tomko said.

The lobby group refrains from calling it an “egg shortage” but “generally the supply of eggs is still tight”.

Scarborough reflected on his farm, which has a pond with hundreds of geese. Since the virus is mainly transmitted to birds through wild waterfowl, he can only hope that “none of these geese get the virus.”

If it infects his herd, he will be forced to “populate” it. “You’re looking at about 40 weeks from when the warehouse is emptied before it starts production again,” Scarborough said.

If that happens to him, he may have to throw in the towel. “It’s kind of scary. I try not to think about it too much.”

Consumer demand for eggs increased during the holiday season, according to the USDA’s Survey of Egg Markets. A winter storm that hit much of the country before Christmas played a role in temporarily curbing the trend, but when customers returned to stores, “eggs remain high on shopping lists.”

The report described supplies as “light to moderate” but becoming more accessible, while demand was seen as “moderate to good” as businesses focused on restocking.

Other reasons for rising egg prices include consumer demand, exports and food price inflation, Colorado Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Olga Robak said.

“At current price levels, eggs are not one of the cheapest protein alternatives.”

Nationally, assorted loose white large-shell egg prices fell $0.63 to $4.12 per dozen, according to the Dec. 30 Review of Egg Markets, but that’s not the case in every region of the United States.

Midwest wholesale rose $0.23 to $5.30, while California rose $0.90 to $7.50 a dozen.

What is happening in Colorado that affects the egg supply?

A state law requiring all eggs sold in Colorado grocery stores to be cage-free took effect Jan. 1. A timeline of Jan. 1, 2025, gives the state’s farmers to transition to cage-free systems. Colorado Department of Agriculture.

State lawmakers passed House Bill 20-1343 in 2020, which requires cage-free housing with specific enclosure sizes. Farm owners must now obtain certificates of compliance, including inspections and annual renewals.

But farms with hens that lay 3,000 or fewer eggs, medical research, veterinary procedures, slaughtering, etc. are exempt from the new rule.

Austin Vincent of the Colorado Farm Bureau said the current egg supply problem is an additional result of “bad legislative policies” along with highly pathogenic bird flu.

The state’s Farm Bureau opposed Colorado’s legislative action, “knowing it would result in fewer choices and higher prices.”

“The Legislature and the governor have the power to address the problem, albeit temporarily, to help relieve stress on the supply chain,” Vincent said.

Which stores are affected?

As of Monday afternoon, the Safeway on Capitol Hill in Denver had just 20 cases of eggs on its shelves. By Tuesday morning, the shelves were empty.

Blocks away, patrons of Capitol Hill’s King Soopers could choose from many options with fully stocked shelves. But reminders of the store’s recent egg shortage remained, as price tags still read, “Sorry for the inconvenience. We will restock this item as soon as it becomes available.”

“We are starting to see the supply chain stabilize and we are removing all procurement restrictions,” said Jessica Trowbridge, a spokeswoman for King Soopers.

Walmart spokeswoman Tricia Moriarty confirmed egg shortages in some Colorado locations “primarily due to the effects of bird flu and very high levels of demand heading into the holidays.”

The retailer is “working diligently with our suppliers to supply all of our stores as quickly as possible.”

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