Picture this. You go to the supermarket and grab a carton of a dozen eggs. You open it and find four missing. So you pick up another carton. Same thing. You try again. Every carton contains only eight eggs.
Thanks to avian influenza (bird flu), that’s what happened to companies that produce liquid, frozen, dehydrated, and freeze dried eggs.
As of June 17, avian influenza had affected more than 35 million egg-laying hens. Businesses making egg products like dehydrated eggs lost more than 30 percent of their hens, according to an American Egg Board blog. That’s two out of every six eggs.
“America’s egg farmers are working hard to find sources for their manufacturing partners and food service customers. However, due to the current supply disruption, there may be some shortages,” the blog said.
Like human influenza, many strains of avian influenza exist.
Most are low pathogenic, which means poultry don’t get very sick. Some are high pathogenic, or deadly to domestic flocks. Some can kill 90 to 100 percent of birds in a flock in two days.
Wild water birds carry the disease and usually don’t get sick, according to the CDC. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service believes those birds likely brought the virus to the U.S. Once here, it may have passed from bird to bird through contact with feces or through the air in poultry houses. The virus could have flown from farm to farm on water birds, hitchhiked on contaminated vehicles and clothing or, though unlikely, been blown by high wind carrying dust and feathers. Scientists have found the virus on the shells of eggs.
The CDC identified three high pathogenic strains in this year’s outbreak. None of them seem to jump easily from birds to people, though one is similar to a strain that made people sick in Europe, Asia and South Africa.
“These specific viruses have not caused infections in people anywhere in the world,” said Alicia Fry from the CDC, in an April 22 news conference. “While we are cautiously optimistic that there will not be human cases, we must be prepared for that possibility, and we are taking routine preparedness steps.”
Almost everyone who caught the virus worked closely with birds. People can’t get bird flu from eating properly cooked birds or eggs, said Angela Shaw, assistant professor in food science and human nutrition and extension specialist in food safety at Iowa State University.
“Avian influenza is not a food borne pathogen,” Shaw said.
Even though we probably won’t get bird flu, it still affects our wallets.
The USDA’s Egg Market News Report said for the week of June 22, a dozen large eggs sold for a $2.35 national average. The average price over the last three years, for the same week, was about 95 cents.
Almost all of the nation’s eggs are spoken for. And it’s not like stores can stock a surplus of fresh ones. There’s such a thing as a rotten egg.
That’s why many retailers and food service customers are having trouble getting products like freeze dried eggs.
Companies making such egg products are struggling to get enough eggs to keep up with demand. Here’s what the USDA’s Egg Market News Report said about late June’s dried egg supply:
“Supplies are very light as processors work to supply needs hand to mouth to regular commitments.”
Individuals can still get and store eggs like the powdered and freeze-dried ones we sell. Frankly, we at Emergency Essentials are lucky: we were able to secure one of the last available shipments of freeze-dried eggs before the shortage became complete. Those eggs should be available though by the end of July.
Because these eggs are pasteurized during processing, no one has to worry about them containing creepy crawlies like bacteria or viruses.
Avian flu usually decreases during the summer, because the sun’s radiation more quickly breaks down the virus. However, agriculture specialists are bracing for autumn.
“We can’t really predict what’s going to happen in the future,” said David Swayne, from the USDA’s Southeast Poultry Research Lab, on April 22. “But once the birds go in the summer up to their northern breeding grounds, it’s really not sure if they will be able to bring the virus back south or not.
“We have to prepare for that potential option.”
American Egg Board: http://www.aeb.org/blog/food-manufacturers
Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avianflu/avian-in-birds.htm
U.S. Department of Agriculture: http://www.usda.gov/documents/usda-avian-influenza-factsheet.pdf; http://www.usda.gov/documents/avian-influenza-biology-outbreaks-qa.pdf
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: “Epidemiologic and Other Analyses of HPAI-Affected Poultry Flocks: June 15, 2015 Report”: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_dis_spec/poultry/downloads/Epidemiologic-Analysis-June-15-2015.pdf
Iowa State University, “Eggs and Poultry Safe to Eat, Iowa State University Food Safety Specialist Stresses,” April 21, 2015: http://www.cals.iastate.edu/news/releases/eggs-and-poultry-safe-eat-iowa-state-university-food-safety-specialist-stresses
USDA Egg Market News Report, June 22, 2015: http://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/pybshellegg.pdf