$18 a dozen: how did America’s eggs get absurdly expensive? | US news

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The egg carton has become the symbol of inflation. By the end of 2022, prices had risen 60% year-on-year, straining holiday budgeting for households across the country.

Some Americans got creative with their sourcing. Attempts to smuggle eggs across the US-Mexico border have skyrocketed, says US Border Patrol, with the agency reporting egg and poultry seizures jumped 108% from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. Shoppers are also looking for local farms, which can be cheaper. Egg farmers on TikTok have poked fun at this blessing by calling themselves “egg dealers” and weighing their produce like it’s a kilogram of drugs.

On Tuesday, prices remained high in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, one of America’s most expensive neighborhoods. At Eli’s Market, a gourmet grocery store, a dozen organic eggs cost between $12.99 and $17.99. “Actually?!” said a customer after learning the price. “That’s crazy.” A store manager declined to comment.

A few blocks away, prices were lower, but still well above what customers are used to. Maria Tripodis, a home cook, looked at boxes of a dozen eggs that ranged from $7.49 to $9.99. “These are nice eggs, but they are a lot more expensive than usual,” she said.

There are signs that things could turn around. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service promises that the end is in sight: As of Jan. 20, loose egg prices are down 52% from their highs the week of Dec. 18. But in the stores I visited, that drop didn’t translate into lower prices for consumers.

a crowd of chickens are eating
Cageless laying hens on a small egg farm in Maryland. Photo: Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images

The American Egg Board has blamed the price hike on an unprecedented outbreak of H1N1, a particularly virulent form of bird flu with a nearly 100% fatality rate among birds. This reduction in the supply of egg-laying birds has caused prices to rise. But a farmer advocacy group accuses major egg producers of driving up prices in a “stealthy scheme” aimed at boosting profits.

The group, called Farm Action, examined publicly available financial data from the egg industry. In a letter calling on the FTC to investigate the record prices, Farm Action determined that the avian flu outbreak had had only an “apparently mild impact on the industry,” reducing the average size of an egg-laying flock by no more than fell more than 6%. compared to 2021.

“Grocery store egg prices have on average tripled for consumers since last year,” said Angela Huffman, co-founder and vice president of Farm Action. “Dominant egg producers blame price increases on inflation and avian flu, but if they only raised prices to cover these costs, why are they raking in product margins fivefold? ”

The Farm Action investigation began with an analysis by the USDA, which noted that the industry had not taken appropriate steps to increase flocks and replace birds lost to avian flu.

“The only answer is that companies are working together to take advantage of these convenient excuses, using bird flu and inflation to set higher prices for consumers,” Huffman said.

The threat of bird flu was real, she noted, but it doesn’t “justify” the price hike. “But the companies are really pushing this narrative.”

Farm Action has called on the FTC to investigate the egg manufacturers, who could force a refund payment that would refund customers money for their purchases. Farm Action forwarded the letter to the Justice Department and USDA encouraging them to help the FTC enforce antitrust laws. “Everyone is really struggling right now, and I think it’s really cruel of these companies to take advantage of the American people in this way,” Huffman said.

Max P Bowman, vice president and CFO of Cal-Maine, the nation’s largest egg supplier, denies these claims. He issued a statement referring to the USDA’s Department of Animal and Plant Health Inspection, which reported that there were 306 million laying hens for table or market eggs as of Jan. 1, down 6% from a year earlier.

“In addition, egg production, like all other industries, is affected by increased input costs,” Bowman’s statement read. “In particular, the costs of feed, labour, fuel and packaging have risen sharply, which has an impact on production costs and thus on the wholesale and retail prices of eggs.”

eggs in a box
“I now have to think like an economist when I buy my eggs,” says Mansion Restaurant’s John Philips. Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Whether or not the prices are inflated by wholesalers, it is the supermarkets that will ultimately determine the costs.

At delis and convenience stores I visited, prices were cheaper than supermarkets but unimaginable a year ago, ranging from $6.90 to $8.99 a dozen. John Philips, owner of Mansion Diner, said demand for omelets and other egg dishes was still strong despite a recent price hike.

“It won’t stop people from ordering breakfast, but it will turn a five-day-a-week customer into a four-day-a-week customer, or a three-day-a-week customer,” he says. said.

Philips said his restaurant called five companies daily for egg prices, which they bought in 30 cases of a dozen eggs each. “We’ve seen everything from $85 to $165,” he said. “That is a huge swing. At times, we can get a cheaper egg from an organic farm in upstate New York than from a wholesale market. It shouldn’t be like this, but I accept it.”

He and his employees regularly switch suppliers. “It’s complicated,” he said. “I sell cheeseburgers for a living, and I now have to think like an economist when I buy my damn eggs.”

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