The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

What’s up with eggs?

Episode Summary

The average retail price for a dozen large eggs has skyrocketed in the last year. What's happening?

Episode Notes

All across California, people are asking the same question: Why are eggs so expensive?

Californians walk into grocery stores only to find them sold out, or that they’re going for $7 or more a dozen. Thanks to inflation, everything is more expensive right now. But when it comes to eggs, there’s more to the story.

Today, how a history of California policy and a global bird flu scrambled the economics of a food staple. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times metro reporter Sonja Sharp

More reading:

$7 a dozen? Why California eggs are so expensive — and increasingly hard to find

Watch: California eggs are becoming expensive, and increasingly hard to find

Op-Ed: Why does California have an egg shortage?

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: All across California right now people are asking the same question: Why are eggs costing so much? People walk into grocery stores only to find them sold out, or they're paying $7 or more for just a dozen. 

Man, I remember when it was like a buck for a dozen. Everything is more expensive right now, of course. Thanks, inflation. But when it comes to the eggsponential rise of cost, there's more to the story than just poached finances. Or hard-boiled troubles.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News from the LA Times.”

It’s Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.

Today: What's up with eggs? How a history of California policy and a global bird flu scrambled the economics of a food staple.

Gustavo: Sonja Sharp is a metro reporter and recently chronicled the many empty refrigerated shelves across Southern California where eggs once sat. Sonja, welcome to The Times.

Sonja Sharp: Thanks so much for having me.

Gustavo: So what is happening right now with eggs?

Sonja: Right. I think this is one of those things that's been a little bit of a slow burn for people where we've seen the price of lots of staple foods go up significantly over the last year, and eggs were kind of on that trajectory, and then they just skyrocketed in price.

So between the beginning of December and the beginning of January, they went up from $4 and something to $7 and change. And that's a huge price increase. And it's also very significant compared to January of last year when they were just $2 and some. And so all of a sudden also people could not find them. So even though the price is so much higher, it's also become very scarce in a way that, that is reminding everybody of 2020.

Gustavo: Why is this happening now?

Sonja: So this is happening now with eggs specifically because we have this big bird flu outbreak, right? It's highly pathogenic avian influenza. It's very, very deadly to poultry. About – almost 60 million chickens and turkeys have been killed. Among those are at least 40 million hens. And that is causing shortages and price hikes all across the country. But the situation is very severe in California.

Gustavo: And is there anything also to do, at least here in California, with that cage-free law that was passed a couple of years ago I think? 

Sonja: Yes, so, folks will probably remember that in 2018 there was a vote. It was an animal welfare proposition that we all voted on that outlawed the sale of what we would call conventional eggs, right, eggs that are laid by hens that spend their entire lives in these small cages where they can't stretch out their wings. The changes were very significant, not only because they changed what could be sold in California, but because California is such a large market across the U.S., and that law went into effect last January, so January of 2022. And all of the hens that have died of this disease, 5 million, have been cage-free hens. And while that doesn't seem like a really big number, it's important to understand that cage-free hens are just like, not that big of, you know, the number of hens that lay eggs in this country. Right now, I was surprised to learn, Americans eat about 300 eggs each a year, which is about exactly as many as a typical hen can lay. So in order for us to all eat all the eggs that we want, or eat all the products that contain eggs that we like, we each need our own personal hen. And so when something like this happens, and so many die all at once, and particularly because we are so restricted here in California about which eggs we can get, that has made it very, very hard for folks to find food on the shelves.

Gustavo: If they're cage-free – in other words, they're able to roam around a little bit more – does that make them more susceptible to avian flu or something like that?

Sonja: Yeah and there was some early kind of speculation, when this outbreak started back in February, that cage-free hens in fact might be more susceptible because they do go outside, and the way that this disease gets into commercial flocks is from wild birds that they either have direct contact with or they share food with or they poop on each other and, you know, somehow that disease gets into the flock. But it also gets in on the shoes of farmers, and through feed, and so many other ways. And once it gets into a population, it can be much easier for it to spread among those hens that are living in those cages like we described, because they're just so much closer together, you know, disease always spreads in that kind of situation. So what the USDA told me is actually there doesn't right now seem to be a difference in how each group is affected. Both a bit affected, basically equally. It's just that cage-free are such a smaller proportion and the demand is so high. 

Gustavo: So it's like a perfect storm of avian flu, this cage-free law, already inflation is just making all the prices rise. So, how are people feeling about all this right now?

Sonja: Well, people are pretty stressed. And I should just mention we are not the only state that has a cage-free law at this point. And in fact, two more of these laws, one in Washington and the other in Colorado, came online Jan. 1. So we were already in the midst of this – think, prices were already very high – and then we have two more states with 14 million more people competing with us for the same eggs that are already in short supply. So that's got people stressed out. I did get emails from folks in other states saying like, our shelves are also bare. It's been stressful. I mean, I went to a bunch of grocery stores. I saw some places, there were just no eggs on the shelves at all, right, and workers on Reddit are really annoyed at this point of having to tell people, “We have no eggs.” Other stores, people could find them, but they were sold out of the ones that were affordable. So I went to stores where people were really kind of picking over what was left, trying to find something that they could pay for. And then of course, that has had a really intense consequence on people who are relying on programs like WIC.

Gustavo: WIC is the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. 

Sonja:  Yes, which strictly limits what you can buy. So it's a little bit similar to what we saw with formula last year when we had a big formula shortage. Everybody was having difficulty finding baby formula, but people who used WIC to buy baby formula were having an even harder time because they were only allowed to buy certain brands, certain sizes, and if those brands and those sizes were sold out they couldn't buy what was left, with the program. And a very similar thing has been happening with eggs, because people who use WIC are only allowed to buy one dozen large eggs. And so if you cannot find that, non-organic, not pasture, extra vitamins, anything like that, then you just can't buy eggs. I also was in a food bank and they were telling me that they used to give out two dozen eggs, and now they had them in baggies of six. They were giving each family six eggs.

Gustavo: Wow

Sonja: You know, wheat prices are high, milk prices are high, and then all of a sudden to have this spike that it's not just another cost, right, but it's this kind of explosive out-of-control cost. Like, eggs are more than gas. When has that ever happened? And then on top of that, there's a sort of an existential feeling of like, how much worse is it gonna get?

Gustavo: After the break, more on the burden of the egg shortage. 

Gustavo: Sonja, how are retailers dealing with the shortage in supply?

Sonja: So, the folks kind of in the middle, they’re doing OK, right, I know that a lot of grocery stores now are limiting what people can buy, so if they have inventory, they're saying you may only buy this much, because they're also limited in how much they can order. I know this is an issue with Trader Joe's for example, is that people are really struggling to find eggs at Trader Joe's. Partially, people want those eggs cause they are a lot cheaper. But Trader Joe's is limited in how much they can order, like many other grocery stores. And it's just been really hard, especially because we don't know when it's gonna end.

Gustavo: Are the farmers going to the chickens and saying, hey girls, can you uh, lay more eggs for us right now fast, please?

Sonja: It would be wonderful if it worked. If it worked like that. 

Gustavo: It's like that old Warner Bros. cartoon with Porky Pig when like, rooster Frank Sinatra faced off against a rooster Bing Crosby.

Sonja: Right, the trouble is this is not even laying season technically. Like, we use lights to get chickens to lay eggs in the winter when they naturally don't want to. Chickens are like the rest of us; they don’t perform well under stress. California has been very lucky and very careful in this. It's like we have about 14 million egg-laying hens in the state. They've been largely spared by this disease. But as I mentioned to you, if we each need one and we're 39 million people, that math doesn't math. Folks here are doing what they can to prevent the disease from spreading. You know, that's the other issue is, we don't know when this disease will go away. Four million egg laying hens were killed in the U.S. from this bird flu just in December, so we don't know that this is over. But once it is over, once we start to get it under control, it still takes time for a chicken to be born and to grow up and to be big enough and mature enough to lay eggs. It doesn't happen overnight. And so folks that I spoke with were a little bit pessimistic about when we might get relief.

Gustavo: Oy veh. Yeah, I see this price rise every week when I have to go pick up eggs for my wife's restaurant. It's just crazy to see the bill go up and up and up, and she can't just cut back on eggs to try to save money because those eggs are an ingredient in a lot of her most popular dishes. From frittatas to quesadillas.

Sonja: Exactly. And again, we can't just turn an economic model on its head, right? Like a lot of us eat eggs because eggs are cheap. That is how it has always been. Eggs are cheap, they're available, they're vegetarian, they're healthy. They have all these wonderful qualities. I used to joke that my, especially my older son, is made of eggs. That's almost all I ate when I was pregnant, and I ate so many, again, because they are a really easy, perfect food. They're a thing you’re used to picking up at the gas station, right, if you're on a long-haul road trip and you just need a snack. You know, I can't tell you the number of foods that eggs are in, and we don't even think about it because unless you're a vegan and you're strictly limiting that food, you're just relying on it.

Gustavo: Coming after the break, we talk to an egg farmer, and how the shortage is affecting their end of the supply chain.

Gustavo: To fully understand all the factors that created this perfect storm hitting eggs we sent our producers Helen Li and Denise Guerra to a processing plant in Southern California. There eggs are packaged before they're sent out to retailers. 

Helen: So can you describe how, like the eggs get to here? Like maybe there's a part of the plant where it starts, the process? And take us through there and walk us through.

Chris: Sure, yeah. So, as much as you'd love to imagine this place is full of, um, lush pastures and free-running chickens. Um, no, we don't do that. But we do that purposefully, because we want to keep the chickens away from our processing plant to keep the biosecurity. 

Gustavo: That's Chris Nichols. He’s the CEO of Chino Valley Ranchers and a third-generation farmer. He said it takes six to seven months for the egg of a single hen to go to market. Chris works with 200 farms across California, Texas and the Midwest and he’s witnessed firsthand the impacts of this shortage on his egg supply. He showed our producers the fridge where the eggs are stored. 

Chris: It's very empty right now. Typically very full. 

Helen: Is it empty right now because of the time of day we’re arriving, or –

Chris: Because there’s a shortage. Uh, yeah, we could have a party inside of that cooler right now.

Gustavo: Most of the eggs have been sold. But Chris says the price increase you’re seeing at the store is part of a price increase all across the industry.  

Chris: Packaging costs have gone through the roof, grain costs have doubled in some cases. We had to increase labor rates to stay competitive. So on top of the avian flu, us as manufacturers, not even just me personally, my company, we started to see all those people passing along those price increases.

Gustavo: So what about just getting more chickens? While laws requiring cage-free were enacted to be more humane to animals, Chris – who farms completely cage-free – admits it also hits farmers in volume.

Chris: You can't put as many chickens on the same square footage of land. When you take what used to be a ranch that holds a million chickens and reduce it down to a hundred thousand chickens, because that's all it'll fit in those buildings with cage-free style, you can imagine I won't be making as much money.

Gustavo: And historically…

Chris: I would say we are short because people have chose to move away from egg farming in the state of California and other farmers throughout the United States have filled that void over time. So therefore we are a deficit state, so we require that other states produce eggs and send them into California.

Gustsavo: But at the end of the day…

Chris: When you're dealing with live animals, you're at the mercy of Mother Nature. You can do everything you can to prevent it, but if Mother Nature wants to strike down, she will. 

Gustavo:  So as we leave the processing plant, and get towards the end of this episode, we wanted to get a final word from Sonja on my biggest question right now: Where can we find cheap eggs?

Sonja: That's a great question. I found a lot of eggs at Food4Less. They were very well stocked when I was there. They had, uh, pretty good prices relative to the other places that I visited. I mean, don't come for me if you – but the one place I know that people are having consistently the hardest time, it seems to be Trader Joe's. They've got great prices, but if you come after noon, you're not gonna find them. I saw good prices and good inventory at Food4Less.

Gustavo: There you go folks. Sonja, thank you so much for this conversation.

Sonja: Thanks so much for having me.

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” Denise Guerra and Helen Li were the jefas on this episode, and I think it's Helen's first episode so congrats, cause Helen's our fellow.

The episode was edited by Heba Elorbany, and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. Our show's produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Robert Reyes and Nicolas Perez.

Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.