Largest Bird Flu Outbreak Leads to Nationwide Egg Shortage

Dr. Hongwei Xin, director of the Iowa Egg Industry Center, explains how the largest outbreak of bird flu in American history is affecting the price of eggs

By Andy UhlerJune 5, 2015 6:40 pm

This week we learned that the Texas grocery store chain H-E-B is limiting the number of eggs people can buy at once to three cartons, and prices are way up. Whataburger, the beloved Texas fast food chain, cut back the number of hours it is serving breakfast. The shortage is caused by what experts are saying is one of the largest Avian Influenza, or Bird Flu, outbreaks since 1984.

So how are we going to make our favorite summer egg scrambles? The Texas Standard spoke to Dr. Hongwei Xin, director of Iowa State University’s Egg Industry Center. Iowa is the nation’s largest egg producer.

How serious is the egg shortage situation? Xin says the outbreak is unprecedented; 35 million egg-laying hens were affected. That’s about 12 percent of our national inventory. Shell egg, or deliver-to-store prices have gone up by 120 percent.

What about food processors or restaurants who use eggs in their products?

“The food processors may opt to either reduce the amount of the product they use,” Xin says, “or look at some replacers…. In the long run then, the industry will recover and will repopulate and then we’ll continue to serve what the industry needs.”

Has the Avian Flu wiped out birds to this degree before?

“Not to this magnitude. In 1983 and 84 we had an H5N2 [Avian Influenza] on the East Coast, Pennsylvania and Virginia,” Xin says. “We lost 17 million birds, which accounted for about 7 percent of the total population then, so this one by far is much larger, a little more than double the total number of birds.”

How long is this outbreak expected to last? Can we have our omelets?

“As the weather warms up this virus will be suppressed and for the last few days we have not seen any new outbreaks in the laying hen flocks here in the Midwest, so that’s good news. It’s hard to predict in the future whether this will come back or not, we sort of hope not. But again, warm weather should help,” Xin says. “Eggs are perfectly safe to eat, so long as they are prepared properly, cooked properly. So far we have not had incidents related to this AI [Avian Influenza] in terms of food safety.”