By now, many Americans have noticed the rising price of eggs and realized that we are in the midst of a shortage.
The culprit is avian flu, primarily the deadly HGN2 strain. In the cramped confines of an industrial chicken coop, the disease spreads faster than wildfires in the middle of a parched summer. Nearly 40 million egg-laying chickens have died in the past three months. The supply has dwindled by almost 20% and prices have risen accordingly, from a national average of $2.00 per dozen to almost $2.50, rising to $3 in some parts of the country; there are reports of wholesale prices doubling.
Ironically, the shortage comes at a time when we are consuming more eggs than ever before—nearly 263 per capita last year. Once the prime target of cholesterol-watchers, eggs are now the beneficiary of research that shows they are both nutritious and healthy. On top of that, you’d be hard pressed to find a breakfast venue that didn’t offer any number of artistic egg white concoctions.
The hardest-hit restaurants are the ones that were making the most money from eggs: diners, chains and trendy cafes. Endless variations on omelets and benedicts have transformed low-end eateries into highly profitable ones, as owners suddenly achieved a food cost that most Chinese and Mexican restaurants would kill for. Those days are over, at least temporarily. Equally affected are the manufacturers of other products in which eggs play a large part, such as mayonnaise and baked goods. The conventional wisdom in the culinary world is that the shortage can’t last forever, so it’s best not to raise prices and simply ride it out.
Some operators are hedging their bets. Panda Express discontinued hot and sour soup and substituted corn for eggs in its fried rice. Whataburger, the Texas-based chain, has curtailed its breakfast hours. Others are more sanguine: In June, McDonalds introduced a new Bacon and White Cheddar McMuffin, and does not anticipate any difficulties in buying the eggs it needs.
Chains, of course, are in a better position to weather the crisis because of their buying power and ability to parcel out the increases over hundreds or thousands of locations. According to a major food service supplier, it could take 18 months for the hen population to return to normal. Until then, those fluffy, oversized omelets are likely to be a thing of the past.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in Spring 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com