How The Biggest Bird Flu Outbreak In History Will Hurt Your Omelet

Photographed by Erin Phraner.
The United States is in the midst of the biggest bird flu outbreak in history. You might not have heard much about it (since it's not fatal for humans) but it's devastating chicken populations: 47 million birds have been killed in more than 20 states — with more than half of them in Iowa, the biggest egg-producing state.

It's more than just a huge bummer for America's poultry, though; it's also putting a massive strain on the egg supply chain. So, what does that mean for your omelet?

First, egg prices are up, but whether you feel the impact of this depends a lot on where you live. In its "National Egg Review," the USDA reported that regional egg prices are 3 to 22.5 cents higher for a dozen cartons of Grade A white eggs — with some areas hit much harder than others. In Iowa, the center of the storm, the price of a dozen eggs at the grocery store has tripled, according the Des Moines Register. No price fluctuations were recorded for the New York egg market.

Whether you'll feel those hikes also depends a lot on your breakfast of choice: A vast majority of the chickens affected by the flu are on giant "breaker" farms, which take eggs and crack them open to make giant vats of "liquid egg" that then gets sold to diners and fast-food chains. (It's how you end up with that uniformly yellow egg in those bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from the bodega.) Boutique restaurants using locally-sourced, small-farm-raised eggs, on the other hand, have little connection with behemoth factory producers in the midwest.

"It's interesting, because it hasn’t really touched us," Nick Korbee, the chef at the beloved New York restaurant Egg Shop (where dishes already cost $10 and up), told us. "Eventually, when the rest of America is having to resort to local eggs, some of our local farming collectives will probably get snapped up by bigger supermarket chains. That will drive our price up, but as of now...barring catastrophe, which we’re really not expecting in the least, I don’t think we’ll raise our menu prices."

According to the NPR report, McDonald's and other fast-food menus are unlikely to change, either. The restaurants most vulnerable to the shortage are those that rely heavily on factory-produced eggs and pre-separated egg whites, which have been more strictly regulated since the influenza explosion. In other words, your low-budget deli breakfast sandwich is the most vulnerable.

"People who weren't using cage-free and organic — and now have to — would probably have to raise their prices," Korbee explained. "That adjustment would be pretty significant."

That your brunch budget is unlikely to be affected by the Iowa shortage is the sunny side up to an otherwise very sad story: This summer, it's become abundantly clear that factory-farmed goods aren't great for anyone — least of all, the birds.

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