Avian flu: Egg supplies nearly normal though just 14% of hens repopulated

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

Avian flu update: Egg supplies nearly normal

Related tags: Egg, Chicken

Although it may be 18 months before the 35 million chickens, ducks and turkeys struck by avian influenza (AI) this spring are repopulated, egg supplies will be back to normal in just a few months, according to U.S. egg farmer cooperative United Egg Producers (UEP).

“With price increases, demand has gone down,” ​UEP CEO Chad Gregory told FoodNavigator-USA. “And since we’ve been importing millions of dozens of eggs these past several months to match demand, we’re not short anymore per se. As people start to repopulate farms, we’re just about at the point where we can supply all manufacturer needs going forward.”

Randy Pesciotta, vice president of the egg division at Urner Barry Publications, estimates that about 4 or 5 million—about 14%—of the birds are repopulated at this point. Supplier imports are also way down due to the impact of price increases and manufacturers switching to egg alternatives.

“The 100 containers a week they were importing ​(mostly from Europe at the height of the crisis) are now more like 20, so they’re bringing in a lot less; yet they’re still not in the open market looking for supply,”​ he said. “That speaks loudly to what they have repopulated and the business they’ve lost.”

It’s hard to say exactly how long it will be until all affected egg farms are back up and producing at pre-AI levels, Gregory said, adding it could be a year though will likely be closer to 18 months.

“Many, if not all, egg farms have completed the cleaning and disinfecting phase and are beginning the process of repopulating—a process that in itself takes months,”​ he said.

This is because the age of the hens is deliberately staggered to produce the right amount of eggs on a consistent basis. Moreover, each company and farm has its own arrangement and supply of baby chicks and pullets, or 16- to 18-week-old hens that have just begun consistently producing eggs.

Lower market prices not yet reflected at retail

Although egg market prices have trailed steadily downward since hitting their high of $2.88 on Aug. 6 to reach $1.62 on Oct. 9, supermarket prices have yet to reflect supply getting back to normal, with most keeping prices at their $2.99 cap when market prices peaked.

“At this point, the natural hope and expectation is that supermarkets will start to reflect the lower pricing, which stimulates consumer demand. But we haven’t seen much reduction,” ​Pesciotta said.

This could be due in part to the fact that supermarkets are anticipating an increase in demand as the holiday season approaches. “Heading into November with Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s the best consumer demand time of year regardless,”​ he said.

Indeed, open-market trading last week saw values going from slightly below to above normal in preparation for the holiday push.

“If that trend continues, it will press the market higher this week,”​ he said. “Will we get to that high of $2.88? No, but it is going to get better.”

No new AI cases; plenty of new biosecurity measures

Now well into the fall migratory period, no new AI cases have been reported, according to UEP. But commercial egg farms—which pre-AI already had “incredible biosecurity programs in place that exceeded USDA requirements,” ​as Gregory noted—have since established new protective measures.

“One of the things we’re looking at more clearly now than, say, six months ago is more of a true visual line of separation for off the farm and on the farm, dirty and clean,” ​Gregory said. “Whether it’s a fence, truck washing, vehicle washing, or changing room for all employees, from this point on has to be considered clean. That’s the mindset egg producers are starting to put themselves in now.”

The big takeaway, however, is that transparency and effective communication are key to getting a handle on this kind of crisis much quicker in the hopes of containing it.

“What was so unique about this virus that was so detrimental and unlike anything we or USDA had ever experienced was the way it spread from farm to farm, county to county, state to state,” ​Gregory said. “It just reinforces that even with incredible biosecurity measures in place, it’s about being open and transparent and immediately reporting things to keep it from spreading.”

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