Shoppers in the Golden State are paying extreme prices for eggs amid a bird flu outbreak that has killed millions of chickens and local grocers have struggled to stock boxes that comply with California law.
“I literally just came out of another store because they were sold out,” said Princess Hodges, 23, who managed to snag an 18-pack at Food4Less in West Adams after slamming into a nearby Ralphs. “I was very surprised because it’s a staple.”
Eggcrates popped up all over Los Angeles County this week, from Trader Joe’s in Long Beach to Amazon Fresh in Inglewood, Target in MidCity and Ralphs in Glendale. Those who found boxes, like Hodges, were shocked by the sudden increase in price.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Anna Sanchez, 32, who was browsing the half-empty shelves at a Smart & Final in University Park looking for a dozen eggs for less than $10. “The cheaper ones simply don’t exist.”
The average retail price for a dozen large eggs rose to $7.37 in California this week, up from $4.83 in early December and just $2.35 at this time last year, US Department of Agriculture data shows.
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 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 California’s poorest hardest, draining food bank inventories and pinching families who rely on federal programs with strict purchasing guidelines. And they’ve only intensified in the new year as new cage-free mandates take effect in other states and demand continues to outstrip supply.
“They had to kill 50 million chickens, and [many of those] cage-free,” said Rami Rosenthal, manager of Toby Egg Farms, a Los Angeles-based egg wholesaler. “The other reason is that California voted [only] cage-free eggs, but California doesn’t have enough.”
More than 57 million chickens and turkeys have died or been culled since the outbreak began last February, including nearly 4 million laying hens in December alone. Among the roughly 40 million chickens lost nationwide since the outbreak began, more than 5 million were cage-free layers, USDA data shows.
Although cage-free hens are slightly more likely to be in contact with the wild birds that infect flocks with avian influenza, they are trapped Colleagues can spread the disease more easily once it reaches a farm. So far, both bird species have been contracted by the virus at similar rates.
“The current outbreak has impacted all types of farms, regardless of size or production style,” a USDA spokeswoman wrote in an email.
The difference is that cage-free flocks only make up about 30% of the US egg market.
The number of cage-free laying hens has grown rapidly in recent years. Herds roughly doubled between November 2018, when Proposal 12 was passed, and January 2022, when the law went into effect. California’s laying hens now number nearly 14 million and they have so far been spared the outbreak.
“Fortunately, our California egg industry has avoided any bird flu in commercial flocks,” wrote Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, in an email. “Their biosecurity is excellent and the companies here work very hard to keep wild birds off facilities and farms across the state.”
But demand has grown much faster than cage-free herds. 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 in Colorado and Washington, where conventional eggs have been banned since January. 1.
That means that between this week and last, nearly 14 million more Americans began competing for an already scarce product.
“All of a sudden, the eggs are gone,” said Glen Curado, founder of Arlington Heights-based World Harvest food bank, which serves between 100 and 200 families a day. “We’ve reduced from three to four packs to one.”
Meanwhile, families continue to flock to the table, where volunteers dressed as Three Kings handed out free toys and about a dozen shoppers filled carts with fresh produce, frozen meat and loaves of bread early Friday afternoon.
Most of the products were on display to take away. But the eggs had been rationed in little plastic bags at the back.
“We used to give away one apartment out of two and a half dozen,” Curado explained. “Now that we’re low, each family gets six eggs.”
Inflation in staple foods like milk and flour has been weighing on poor families for months. But the current egg shortage has been particularly tough on families who rely on the federal Special Supplemental Feeding for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
WIC covers eggs for 1 million low-income parents-to-be, new families and children under 5 in California.
But only a dozen boxes of Big White Eggs can be bought with WIC vouchers. As this is usually the cheapest product, it is now almost impossible to find as well. Brown, medium, organic, 18-packs – all of these are forbidden to WIC shoppers, even if the store shelves are otherwise empty.
“It’s the same as with [baby] Formula – they have to buy specific ounces, specific grams,” said Gloria Martinez of Mother’s Nutritional Center, a Southern California chain that specializes in WIC foods.
WIC pays for 50% of baby formula sold in the US. But strict size and brand restrictions prevented recipients from buying the few cans found during last year’s trough of shortages.
Now the same thing is starting to happen to eggs, experts fear.
“You would go in and the eggs [covered by WIC] are out of stock,” Martinez said. “People come in and say they’re out of eggs, they’re out of formula. It is difficult to go to the shops, mainly because of the price of petrol.”
While the sudden rise in egg prices is not itself a product of inflation, inflation has severely limited many families’ ability to either grab a bargain or seek alternatives.
It’s also putting pressure on food companies who can no longer pass costs on to vulnerable consumers.
“Small businesses, especially, live and die by the cost of groceries,” said Tracy Ann Devore, owner of KnowRealityPie in Eagle Rock, who recently unleashed a dishwasher to help stem rising costs. “If this continues for 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 might end, was more worrying than the gradual rise in dairy, flour and fruit and vegetable prices.
“There comes a point when you can’t raise the price anymore,” Devore said. “There have been points lately where I’ve cried because I was like, ‘How are we supposed to move on with this?'”
For grocery shoppers like Sanchez, the answer was simply to wait and hope prices go down.
Wholesaler Rosenthal said it could take a while.
“You have to replace the chickens, and they don’t start laying overnight,” he said. “It won’t end for seven or eight months.”