UPDATED: Egg Shortage Now Affecting Houston Grocery Stores — Turkeys Likely to Be Next

This story is continually developing and will continue to be updated as we receive information and press releases from affected businesses. 

On May 31, 2015, a clamor arose from fast food breakfast fans upon hearing that Whataburger has shortened breakfast hours due to an egg shortage. The underlying issues go far beyond having fewer available Taquitos. Now, at least one major grocery store chain is affected.  

H-E-B stores have posted signs that limit consumer purchases to three dozen eggs per customer. The signs also indicate that the limited egg supply should not be purchased by commercial entities. That means that places like bakeries and restaurants that lack an industrial supplier, like Sysco, may find themselves unable to get sufficient eggs for their standard recipes.

The Houston Press has received this statement from H-E-B: 

The United States is facing a temporary disruption in the supply of eggs due to the Avian Flu.  The avian flu this year has impacted a significant portion of the egg laying population in the United States (over 30 million birds).  This temporary constriction in the US market has caused an increase in price and shortage in availability of eggs.

H-E-B works hard to absorb price increases and to level out the volatility in the commodity market for our customers.  H-E-B’s egg procurement team is monitoring the situation closely; we understand the importance of this product to all customers and take market availability matters seriously.  

H-E-B is committed to ensuring Texas families and households have access to eggs, our eggs are not for commercial sale. We are asking our customers to limit their purchase to three cartons per purchase. The signs placed on our shelves last week are to deter commercial users from buying eggs in bulk.

UPDATED, 6/4/2015, 12:29 p.m.: Kroger has not yet needed to implement limits and returned our call with this statement: 

Kroger is not experiencing an egg shortage at this time. We are not limiting customers’ purchase quantities.

UPDATED, 6/4/2015, 5:58 p.m.: Charley Wilson, vice president of corporate communications at Sysco Foods, had this to say as a broad statement about the United States market: 

Like everyone else, the egg shortage is also affecting distributors. We’ve observed an increase in suppliers’ prices for shell eggs, although availability seems to be OK  in many markets. With liquid (or processed) eggs, shortages are limiting our ability to take new orders. It’s challenging to everyone across the food service business, whether you’re a restaurant, supplier or distributor. 

UPDATED, 6/4/2015, 6:44 p.m.: Indeed, as noted above the egg shortage and resulting price increases are affecting restaurant costs. Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly had this to say: 

At Underbelly, Hay Merchant and Blacksmith, our egg prices have gone up 20 percent. Since it's built into our business plan not to haggle with farmers, we are paying more, but we are currently not passing along these price increases to our customers. If the situation continues, we may have to re-evaluate a few things, but for now, it's business as usual. 

The situation is looming large not only as a significant impact on supply, but as a giant magnifying glass on how it came to pass in the first place. There are 318.9 million people in the United States. That’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed. Many want or need cheap food to fit budgetary concerns. That has led to the rise of factory farming, where thousands of food animals are packed in together in tight quarters.

The crowded conditions mean that disease can spread like wildfire through animal populations. That is exactly what is happening with the A H5 avian influenza virus that has led to the deaths of more than 45 million domestic birds, including egg-laying chickens, meat chickens, ducks and turkeys. Not all of died due to infection. Once the flu strain is found in a flock, the entire flock is killed to prevent it from spreading further. 

The measures used to prevent the spread of disease are gruesome. Entire chicken populations are killed by either carbon monoxide gas or foam when the disease is found to prevent further spread. There are so many dead fowl to dispose of that giant pits are being dug with bulldozers and incinerators brought in from other states by hard-hit areas like Iowa. Some are being composted, which leads to a stench for area residents to deal with. 

The source of the current strain of A H5 is believed to be wild, migrating birds. Texas is on the “Central Flyway,” one of the migration paths of wild birds across the United States. Thankfully, no Texas avian influenza cases have been reported so far, but the disease has devastated farms in states to the north. The A H5 virus has been found in Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa , Kansas, Minnesota , Missouri, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.

It’s not just chicken populations being affected. A press release Wednesday from the Iowa Department of Agriculture announced that in Sac and Hamilton counties, two more probable case of avian influenza have been discovered on turkey farms. One houses approximately 40,000 birds and the other about 19,600. That means that come Thanksgiving time, many Americans may not be able to put a turkey on the table, thanks to either scarcity or the resulting high prices. The numbers especially apply for those who prefer to prepare fresh turkeys instead of frozen. According to a post at the World Poultry web site, 5 million turkeys have been slaughtered so far due to the avian flu outbreak. Almost an entire month of Minnesota's turkey production has been wiped out. 

UPDATED, 6/4/2015, 5:53 p.m.: According to Lara Durben, communications and program director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, if you use frozen birds, your Thanksgiving is probably still safe. She says: 

Generally speaking, the loss of turkeys from avian influenza right now stands at about 3% of the total U.S. production (about 7 million birds lost out of 240 million total) and while this is certainly significant to individual growers, companies, and communities hit hard with the virus, the industry doesn't anticipate seeing a shortage of turkeys at Thanksgiving nor are we seeing major price hikes at this point. Another point to note is that with some export markets currently shut down, this will divert product to stay within the U.S., keeping supplies and prices a bit more steady. Finally, much of the turkey production that has been lost to avian flu have been toms (or male turkeys), which are not utilized as whole birds for Thanksgiving. 

When will the disease be brought under control and stop threatening our food supply? For now, it's a wait-and-see situation. 

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook