Colorado shoppers on the hunt for eggs are often finding shelves empty or picked over, as both avian flu and a new state law have destabilized grocers’ supply chains.
Highly pathogenic avian influenzaa highly-contagious virus that can kill domestic poultry, is the main culprit for the shortage, said Scott Scarborough, owner and head farmer of City Farm LLC in Montrose.
He also pointed to a new state law requiring that all eggs sold in grocery stores and produced on Colorado farms be cage-free. As demand for cage-free eggs skyrockets after the mandate took effect on Jan. 1, “that’s adding to the problem,” said Scarborough, who uses the free-range and pasture-raised approaches. “There’s not that many people who’ve been doing cage-free eggs.”
Last week, Scarborough noticed empty store shelves in his Western Slope community. Grocers with eggs in stock placed limits on the amount customers could purchase.
He predicted the tight supply could last through 2023. “It’s not going to get a lot better this next year.”
Why is the nation’s egg supply tight? Am I paying more for eggs?
Since February, hen flocks nationwide have suffered outbreaks of the avian flu.
As a result, nearly 40 million hens have died or been euthanized — a 5% drop in flock size last November compared to the same month in 2021, the US Agriculture Department reported. Over the past year, the agency has confirmed cases of the virus in 46 states, including Colorado.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service first detected it presence in the state in April in the non-commercial backyard flock in Pitkin County. State officials quarantined and euthanized the birds, the US Agriculture Department reports.
Mike Tomko, American Farm Bureau Federation spokesperson, pointed to Colorado as “one of the states that has been hit hard” by the virus, particularly on the egg front.
“Over 6 million birds have been affected in total in 2022, with the latest commercial detection in Colorado affecting just shy of 1.3 million table egg layers in December,” Tomko said.
The lobbying group stops short of calling it “an egg shortage,” but “egg supplies overall are still tight.”
Scarborough reflected on his farm, which includes a pond with hundreds of geese. As the virus predominantly transmits to poultry through wild waterfowlhe can only hope “none of those geese got the virus.”
If his flock gets infected, he would be forced to “depopulate” it. “You’re looking at about 40 weeks after a barn is depopulated before they’re back in production again,” Scarborough said.
Should that happen to him, he may be forced to throw in the towel. “It’s kind of scary. I try not to think about it too much.”
Over the holiday season, consumer demand for eggs increased, according to the US Agriculture Department’s Egg Markets Overview. The winter storm that impacted much of the country before Christmas played a role in temporarily curbing that trend, but, as customers return to stores, “eggs remain high on their shopping lists.”
The report described supplies as “light to moderate,” but growing more available, while demand is considered “moderate to good,” with businesses focused on restocking.
Other causes of price increases for eggs include consumer demand, exports and food price inflation, said Olga Robak, Colorado Department of Agriculture spokesperson.
“At the current price levels, eggs are not one of the lowest cost protein alternatives.”
Nationally, prices for graded, loose, white large shell eggs dropped $0.63 to $4.12 per dozen, but that’s not the case in every US region, according to the Egg Markets Overview from Dec. 30.
The Midwest wholesale cost jumped $0.23 to $5.30 per dozen, and a dozen in California shot up $0.90 to $7.50.
What’s happening in Colorado that’s impacting its egg supply?
A state law requiring that all eggs sold in Colorado’s grocery stores be cage-free went into effect on Jan. 1. The timeline for the state’s farmers gives them until Jan. 1, 2025, to transition to cage-free systems, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
State lawmakers passed House Bill 20-1343 in 2020, which requires cage-free housing with specific enclosure measurements. Farm owners must now receive compliance certifications, which include inspections and annual renewals.
But farms with 3,000 or fewer egg-laying hens are exempt from the new rule, as are those for medical research, veterinary procedures, slaughter and more.
Austin Vincent of the Colorado Farm Bureau said the current egg supply problem is an added consequence of “bad legislative policy,” on top of highly pathogenic avian influenza.
The state’s Farm Bureau opposed Colorado’s legislative move, “knowing that it would result in fewer options and higher prices.”
“The legislature and the governor have the power to fix the issue, even if temporarily, to help relieve some stress on the supply chain,” Vincent said.
Which stores are affected?
On Monday afternoon, only about 20 egg cartons sat on the shelves of a Safeway on Capitol Hill in Denver. By Tuesday morning, the shelves were empty.
Blocks away, patrons of Capitol Hill’s King Soopers could choose from a dozen options, with fully-stocked shelves. But reminders of the store’s recent egg shortage remained, as price tags were still covered by stickers reading, “Sorry for the inconvenience. We’ll restock this item as soon as it’s available.”
“We are beginning to see the supply chain stabilize and have removed all purchase limits,” said King Soopers spokesperson Jessica Trowbridge.
Tricia Moriarty, spokesperson for Walmart, confirmed egg shortages at some Colorado locations “mainly due to avian flu impacts and very high demand levels leading up to the holidays.”
The retailer is “working diligently with our suppliers, in order to supply all of our stores as quickly as possible.”
Grocery stores aren’t the only businesses feeling the squeeze. Cindy Keys, director of procurement at Snooze AM Eatery, noted that egg supply “is definitely going to get tighter,” as the cage-free law took effect.
Snooze, which bought more than 8.3 million shell eggs in 2022, has opted to only source cage-free eggs for years — a move Keys described as “beneficial during this time as many suppliers are struggling to maintain supply for their existing customers and are unable to take on any new business.”
Founded in Denver, the company’s breakfast empire spans 10 states.
“We had to scramble — no pun intended — to find multiple avenues to keep cage-free shell eggs in our restaurants at elevated costs upwards of 125% more on the open market versus on contract pricing agreements,” Keys said.