Why are eggs more expensive in California than elsewhere?

Golden State buyers are charging exorbitant prices for eggs amid a bird flu outbreak that has killed millions of chickens and made it difficult for local grocers to stock cartons that comply with California law.

“I literally came from another store because they were out,” said Princess Hodges, 23, who managed to pick up 18 packages after hitting up a nearby Ralphs at Food4Less in West Adams. “I was very surprised because that’s the main thing.”

Egg cases in Los Angeles County were bare this week, from Trader Joe’s in Long Beach to Amazon Fresh in Inglewood, Target in MidCity to Ralphs in Glendale. Those like Hodges who found the cartons were shocked by the sudden price hike.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Anna Sanchez, 32, browsing the half-empty shelves at Smart & Final in University Park for a dozen eggs for under $10. “There are simply no cheaper ones.”

The average retail price for many large eggs in California rose to $7.37 this week from $4.83 in early December and just $2.35 this time last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cause is an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, which has killed tens of millions of egg layers nationwide. Among them are the millions of cage-free chickens that California relies on to comply with Proposition 12, the 2018 animal welfare initiative that went into effect last year.

The resulting shortages and price hikes have hit the poorest Californians hard, eating up inventory at food banks and straining families who rely on federal programs with strict purchasing rules. They only intensified in the new year as new cage-free mandates went into effect in other states and demand continued to outstrip supply.

“They had to kill 50 million chickens and [many of those] go cage-free,” said Rami Rosenthal, head of Toby Egg Farms, an egg wholesaler in Los Angeles. “Another reason is that California voted to have it [only] cage-free eggs, but California doesn’t have enough.

Since the outbreak began last February, more than 57 million chickens and turkeys have died or been destroyed, including nearly 4 million egg-laying hens in December alone. Of the nearly 40 million chickens lost nationwide since the outbreak began, more than 5 million were cage-free egg layers, according to the USDA.

Although cage-free chickens are slightly more likely to come into contact with wild birds that infect flocks with avian influenza, their indoor once they reach the farm, their colleagues can spread the disease more easily. So far, both bird species have contracted the virus at similar rates.

“The current outbreak has affected all types of farms, regardless of size or production style,” a USDA spokesperson said in an email.

The difference is that cage-free flocks make up only 30% of the US egg market.

Undoubtedly, the number of cage-free layers has increased rapidly in recent years. Herds nearly doubled between November 2018, when Proposition 12 passed, and January 2022, when the law took effect. California’s layers now number almost 14 million, and so far they have been immune to the epidemic.

“Fortunately, our California egg industry has avoided bird flu in commercial flocks,” California Poultry Federation President Bill Mattos said in an email. “Their biosecurity is top notch and companies here are working hard to keep wild birds away from facilities and farms in the state.”

But demand has grown faster than cage-free flocks. Since Proposition 12 was passed, at least six other states have voted to ban the sale of conventional eggs. Three of those bans are now in effect, including Colorado and Washington, which banned regular eggs on January 1.

That means that between this week and last week, almost 14 million more Americans began competing for an already scarce commodity.

“All of a sudden there were eggs,” said Glen Curado, founder of the World Harvest food bank in Arlington Heights, which serves 100 to 200 families a day. “Three to four packs, we’re down to one.”

Meanwhile, more families are arriving at the food bank, where volunteers dressed as the Three Kings handed out free toys and about a dozen shoppers filled carts with fresh produce, frozen meats and breads Friday afternoon.

Most of the products were exhibited. But the eggs were divided into small plastic bags in the back.

“We used to rent out two and a half dozen apartments,” Curado explained. “Now that we’re down, six eggs per family.”

Inflation on basic food items such as milk and flour has burdened poor families for months. But the current egg shortage has been particularly difficult for families who rely on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.

WIC covers eggs for 1 million low-income expectant parents, new families and children under 5 in California.

However, only one carton of large white eggs can be purchased with WIC vouchers. Since this is usually the cheapest product, it is almost impossible to find it even now. Brown, medium, organic, 18-pack—all are off-limits to WIC shoppers, even when store shelves are otherwise bare.

“It’s the same thing as [baby] formula — they have to get specific ounces, specific grams,” said Gloria Martinez of Mother Nutrition Center, a Southern California chain that specializes in WIC foods.

WIC pays for 50% of infant formula sold in the US. However, strict size and brand restrictions prevented buyers from purchasing the few boxes that could be found in the depths of the shortage last year.

Now the same thing is starting to happen with eggs, experts fear.

“They would come in and the eggs [covered by WIC] “It’s not in stock,” Martinez said. “People come and say they’re out of eggs, they’re out of formula. It’s hard to go to the store, especially because of the price of gas.”

Indeed, while the sudden increase in the price of eggs is not a product of inflation, inflation has severely limited the ability of many families to either hunt for bargains or obtain alternatives.

It also puts pressure on food businesses, which cannot pass on more costs to leaner consumers.

“Especially small businesses, you live and die by what your food costs are,” said Tracy Ann Devore, owner of KnowRealityPie in Eagle Rock, who recently put out a dishwasher to avoid rising costs. “If this continues for another three to six months, it could be a tipping point for some bakeries to close.”

For Devore and many others, the new egg crisis, coupled with uncertainty about when it will abate, has been more worrisome than the gradual rise in prices of dairy, flour and produce.

“At some point, you can’t raise the price anymore,” Devore said. “I’ve been crying lately because I’m like, ‘How are we going to go on with this?’ I thought.”

For grocery shoppers like Sanchez, the answer has been to simply wait and hope prices drop.

Wholesaler Rosenthal said it could be a while.

“They have to replace hens, and they don’t start laying eggs overnight,” he said. “It won’t be over for another seven or eight months.”

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