Golden State shoppers are shelling out extreme prices for eggs, amid an outbreak of bird flu that has killed millions of hens and left local grocers struggling to stock cartons that comply with California law.
"I literally just came from another store, because they were out," said Princess Hodges, 23, who managed to snag an 18-pack at Food4Less in West Adams after striking out at a nearby Ralphs. "I was extremely surprised, because it's a staple."
Egg cases were bare across Los Angeles County this week, from Trader Joe's in Long Beach to Amazon Fresh in Inglewood, Target in MidCity to Ralphs in Glendale. Those such as Hodges who found cartons were shocked by the sudden spike in price.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Anna Sanchez, 32, who scoured the half-empty shelves at a Smart & Final in University Park looking for a dozen eggs for less than $10. "The cheaper ones just aren't there."
The average retail price for a dozen large eggs jumped to $7.37 in California this week, up from $4.83 at the beginning of December and just $2.35 at this time last year, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show.
The cause is an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza — commonly known as bird flu — that has killed tens of millions of egg-layers nationwide. Among these are millions of cage-free hens California relies on to comply with Proposition 12, the 2018 animal welfare initiative that took effect last year.
The resulting shortages and price increases have hit the poorest Californians hard, eating up inventory at food banks and pinching families who rely on federal programs with strict buying guidelines. And they've only been exacerbated in the new year, as new cage-free mandates in other states take effect and demand continues to outstrip supply.
"They had to kill 50 million chickens, and [many of those] lay cage-free," said Rami Rosenthal, head of Toby Egg Farms, a Los Angeles egg wholesaler. "The other reason is California voted to have [only] cage-free eggs, but California doesn’t have enough."
More than 57 million chickens and turkeys have died or been culled since the outbreak began last February, including close to 4 million egg-laying hens in December alone. Among the roughly 40 million hens lost nationwide since the outbreak began, more than 5 million were cage-free egg layers, USDA data show.
Although cage-free hens may be somewhat more likely to come into contact with the wild birds that infect flocks with avian influenza, their enclosed counterparts can more easily spread the disease once it reaches a farm. So far, both types of birds have been stricken with the virus at similar rates.
"The current outbreak has impacted all types of farms, regardless of size or production style," a USDA spokeswoman wrote in an email.
The difference is, cage-free flocks make up only about 30% of the U.S. egg market.
To be sure, the number of cage-free layers has grown rapidly in recent years. Flocks roughly doubled between November 2018, when Proposition 12 passed, and January 2022, when the law took effect. California's layers now number almost 14 million, and they have so far been spared by the outbreak.
"Luckily, our California egg industry has avoided any bird flu in commercial flocks," California Poultry Federation President Bill Mattos wrote in an email. "Their biosecurity is outstanding and companies here are working very hard to keep wild birds out of facilities and farms across the state."
But demand has grown much faster than cage-free flocks. Since Proposition 12 passed, at least six other states have voted to prohibit the sale of conventional eggs. Three of those bans are now in effect, including in Colorado and Washington, where conventional eggs were outlawed Jan. 1.
That means, between this week and the last, almost 14 million more Americans began competing for a product that was already scarce.
"All of a sudden, eggs are out," said Glen Curado, founder of the World Harvest food bank in Arlington Heights, which serves between 100 and 200 families a day. "From three to four packs, we're down to one."
Meanwhile, more families are coming to the food bank, where volunteers dressed as the Three Kings passed out free toys and about a dozen shoppers filled carts with fresh produce, frozen meat and loaves of bread early Friday afternoon.
Most products were out on display for the taking. But eggs had been rationed to small plastic bags in the back.
"We used to give out a flat of two and a half dozen," Curado explained. "Now, since we're low, each family are given six eggs."
Inflation on basic grocery staples such as milk and flour has burdened poor families for months. But the current egg shortage has been particularly tough for families who rely on the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.
WIC covers eggs for 1 million low-income expectant parents, new families and children younger than 5 in California.
But only a one-dozen carton of large white eggs, can be bought with WIC vouchers. Because this is typically the cheapest product, it is now also almost impossible to find. Brown, medium, organic, 18-packs — all these are forbidden to WIC shoppers, even when store shelves are otherwise bare.
”It's the same thing like with [baby] formula — they have to buy specific ounces, specific grams,” said Gloria Martinez of Mother's Nutritional Center, a Southern California chain specializing in WIC foods.
WIC pays for 50% of the baby formula sold in the U.S. Yet strict size and brand restrictions barred recipients from buying what few cans could be found during the depths of the shortage last year.
Now, the same thing is starting to happen with eggs, experts fear.
"They would go in and the eggs [covered by WIC] are not in stock,” Martinez said. "People come in saying they're out of eggs, they're out of formula. Especially because of the price of gas, it’s difficult to go store-hopping."
Indeed, though the sudden price spike for eggs is not itself a product of inflation, inflation has sharply limited many families' ability to either hunt down a bargain or shell out for alternatives.
It's also put pressure on food businesses that can't pass more costs on to stretched-thin consumers.
"Small businesses especially, you live and die by what your food costs are," said Tracy Ann Devore, owner of KnowRealityPie in Eagle Rock, who recently let go a dishwasher to stem rising costs. "If this keeps up for another three to six months, it could be a tipping point for some bakeries to close."
For Devore and many others, the new egg crisis, combined with uncertainty about when it could ebb, has been more unsettling than the gradual price creep of dairy products, flour and produce.
"At some point, you can't raise the price anymore," Devore said. "There’s been points where I've cried recently, because I thought, 'How are we going to keep going with this?'"
For grocery shoppers such as Sanchez, the answer has been simply to wait and hope prices come down.
Rosenthal, the wholesaler, said that could be a while.
"They have to replace the chickens, and they don't start laying overnight," he said. "There’s not going to be an end to this for another seven or eight months."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.