Sparse shelves and high prices: Colorado’s egg shortage is likely driven by avian flu

· Jan. 12, 2023, 1:55 pm
Customers at the Whole Foods in Denver's Washington Park West neighborhood were advised that they could only buy two cartons of eggs at a time, due to the egg shortage.Customers at the Whole Foods in Denver's Washington Park West neighborhood were advised that they could only buy two cartons of eggs at a time, due to the egg shortage.Sarah Bures/CPR News
Customers at the Whole Foods in Denver's Washington Park West neighborhood were advised that they could only buy two cartons of eggs at a time, due to the egg shortage.

In early December, consumers across the state began noticing empty shelves where eggs are normally stocked. It didn’t matter where they were — Target, Safeway, King Soopers, you name it — the eggs were not there.

“We're breakfast people, so we do fried eggs, bagels and stuff like that,” Louisville resident Mark Cathcart said in December. “I walked past the egg cabinet [at the grocery store] and it was hugely empty.” Cathcart said he hadn’t seen shelves that empty since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the new year, the problem intensified. Not only were some stores completely devoid of eggs, some were charging higher prices for every type of egg, leading to what Olga Robak, a Colorado Department of Agriculture spokesperson, called a “perfect storm” of circumstances. 

“We definitely have seen high impact of the avian flu on egg-laying hens across the country. We don't believe that the cage-free law is causing a significant impact on the prices,” Robak said. She did point to some issues with the supply chain, including the availability of egg cartons, that may also be contributing to the increase in prices.

Avian flu has wiped out about five percent of the nation's egg-laying population. In Colorado, about 6.4 million chickens have been killed by the virus or put down to prevent further spread within a flock. Every major egg producer in the state has been affected.

What to expect at grocery stores

At the King Soopers in Westminster, the cheapest dozen of eggs cost $5.99. That’s more than the average price of a dozen eggs nationwide, which hit $3.59 in November, according to the Consumer Price Index. Eggs that were produced under more expensive conditions, like organically fed or pasture-raised hens, cost even more. 

Jessica Trowbridge, a spokesperson for King Soopers, said that’s the case for major retailers nationwide.

“King Soopers’ egg supply remains adequate; however, to maintain a supply that can continue to serve customers, we are temporarily limiting delivery and pickup egg purchases to three per order. We continue to monitor the supply and will adjust accordingly,” Trowbridge said in an email statement. She did not respond to a request for an interview. 

Leevers Locavore, a Denver-based and employee-owned grocery store, sources its products locally, which has allowed it to keep prices stable, according to store manager Sarah Reynolds.

“We have really good relationships with these local farmers. We're all just trying to look out for each other,” Reynolds said. “Nobody's trying to make more money off a serious problem.”

Reynolds said the cheapest dozen of eggs at the store is $5.99, which covers the cost local farmers incur by raising their chickens in open pastures and on organic feed.

Leevers Locavore hasn’t run out of inventory like other stores. Reynolds cautioned against consumer panic in response to the shortage.

“When you hear about the toilet paper shortage, what does everybody do? They go buy toilet paper, even if they don't need it,” Reynolds said, referencing the shortage of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. “And it's the same thing. We have people coming in [to buy] several cartons of eggs and that doesn't help the problem unless that's what you eat in a week.”

Grocery stores are beginning to comply with a new state law that requires them to only sell eggs produced in cage-free facilities. The law was passed in 2020 before this strain of avian flu began spreading. While officials said the new law doesn't impact prices, it may impact inventory as grocers come into compliance and find new producers. Non-cage-free eggs aren’t disappearing quite yet; stores are allowed to sell what’s remaining of that inventory. 

What to expect at restaurants

Eggs are also extremely common in restaurants, even in places that don’t serve breakfast. The ingredient can be used as a binder in doughs or a thickening agent in sauces. Sometimes it just tastes really good when fried over-easy and put on top of a burger. 

The avian flu and its effect on prices are impacting restaurants and bakeries, too. Denver restaurant HOJA has opted to stop serving scrambled eggs in their signature burritos. The restaurant cited price and the size of their current space as reasons for the change, as well as a desire to not resort to ordering a mass amount of eggs from large-scale factory farms. Poached eggs will continue to be served with some dishes. 

Carolyn Nugent and Alen Ramos, owners of Poulette Bakeshop in Parker, are far more dependent on eggs than HOJA. Some of their signature products, like brioche loaves and French-style macarons, rely on eggs. 

“Say we have a loaf of brioche and it used to cost me $2 to make,” said Ramos. “Now it [costs] me about $4.50 to make it.” 

In Steamboat Springs, Scott Engelman, who owns Truffle Pig Restaurant and Carl’s Tavern, said eggs aren’t the only ingredient that have seen price increases in the past several years.

The high cost of food adds up, and customers ultimately see that in the price tag on menu items. “I think restaurateurs, and any business for that matter, really need to defend themselves on what they're charging because they have to maintain margins to stay viable and stay alive,” Engelman said. 

Neither Engelman, nor Nugent and Ramos have had to pull items from their menus. 

But Engelman said he might be forced to reconsider if it impacts his customer base at Carl’s Tavern. “I don't have the luxury of flexing my prices up because it's a different type of clientele to come in,” he said. They “expect a certain price point for rotisserie chicken or barbecue ribs or a burger.” 

Nugent said customers in Parker have so far been understanding about the situation. She encouraged customers to ask questions about the prices. 

“If they see a price that they're unsure of, it's always better to create a dialogue around, ‘Hey, you know, why is it $14.50 for your brioche loaf when before Christmas it was $12 or $10?” Nugent said. “Hopefully that understanding and that dialogue will create an opportunity for them to continue to support us.”

How prevalent is avian flu right now?

Avian flu is primarily spread by waterfowl, like geese and ducks. It can spread through fecal matter or close contact with an infected bird. In addition to commercial flock deaths, the flu has killed bald eagles and other raptors.

People who see a dead bird are encouraged to report the corpse to wildlife officials for testing. However, the Colorado Sun reported Colorado Parks and Wildlife is overwhelmed with the demand for tests and is concentrating efforts in the most impacted parts of the state.  

The last major outbreak of avian flu in Colorado was in a commercial flock in Weld County, where 260,000 chicken were put down in December. Since there, there have been 14 confirmed cases of the disease, mostly in Canadian geese.

Experts and agriculture officials aren’t sure when, or if, this outbreak will end. This particular strain has already lasted longer than what is normally associated with avian flu, and neither a treatment nor a vaccine exist for infected birds. 

As another mass bird migration approaches with the end of winter, officials are preparing for another wave of the virus. “At this point, I know our teams are preparing to respond to this on an ongoing basis,” Robak said.

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