The egg shortage points to larger, much more dangerous issues

Lots of price-of-eggs memes in my social media feeds, most of which are pretty stupid because they suggest that the price of eggs is somehow another thing the government has screwed up.

The New Republic has a very good article up by Boyce Upholt that takes a look at the real reason that eggs are so expensive, starting with a look at the weird news coverage of the egg shortage:

Mostly, though, the coverage has pondered one question: Why are eggs so pricey? The answer is relatively straightforward. Yet the egg panic should be raising bigger questions: Might this virus jump to humans, and can anything be done to stop it? These answers are more complicated and may depend on whether we’re willing to give up cheap eggs.

Modern egg farms are less agricultural than sci-fi dystopian. The birds are stuffed into cages that offer less than a single page of printer paper’s worth of space; the cages are stacked, row after row, with some facilities housing more than a million birds. The feed is carefully formulated, the light deliberately manipulated so that the hens are tricked into churning out as many eggs as possible.

For an influenza virus, such barns are paradise. Since the chickens have been engineered to maximize egg production, they’re genetically identical—a buffet of bodies where disease spreads rapidly. The only option for industrial farmers after a bird tests positive, then, is to slaughter every single one in the facility. But the problem goes beyond the size of these cullings. “These birds are immunologically naïve and act as an enormous amplifier of the virus,” virologist Michelle Wille told me last summer. “This obviously means that we have enormous reservoirs for avian influenza … and increases risk for viral transmission. It is with this enormous amplification that we see zoonotic spillover events.”

Mammals generally cannot contract bird flu. Every once in a while, though, evolution allows for a trans-kingdom leap. The pandemic of 1918—the worst in modern history, with a mortality rate 30 times higher than Covid’s—happened after a bird flu virus jumped from Midwestern chicken farms into human populations. Another scary wave of bird flu hit Hong Kong in 1997, when 18 people were infected and six died, a staggering mortality rate. As I noted in my investigation for The New Republic last year, this outbreak was likely prompted by the recent arrival of intensive chicken production in China.

In the years since, the disease has slowly spread across the globe, hitchhiking in the bodies of wild birds, which often show no symptoms. Leaps into domestic poultry were rare; the last U.S. outbreak occurred in 2014. But once the virus hit our farms, it grew more contagious, according to officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This strengthened virus spread from farm to farm until, after a then-record 50 million birds were euthanized, the epidemic was contained.

That number jumped in 2022 to 58 million birds killed because of the avian flu.

One infuriating thing I did not know is how our government subsidizes chicken farmers — usually multi-billion dollar corporations whose farming practices exacerbate the problem:

But to focus only on grocery-store prices is to miss the full costs of eggs. The 2014–2015 crisis cost the federal government $879 million, including indemnities paid to chicken companies. According to one estimate, the ripple effects across the U.S. economy reached $3.3 billion.

This year, with a higher death toll, the government will likely spend more. The big chicken companies, meanwhile, are doing just fine. Cal-Maine recently announced record-setting quarterly profits, which has prompted accusations of price gouging. It does seem fishy that a relatively small drop in egg supply can drive such huge jumps in price, but the real cause is more likely to be the unique economics of eggs. This is a staple product with few good substitutes, which means demand is inelastic; even a small drop in supply forces a big jump in price before buyer behavior will change. Collusion or not, the outcome is the same: The spread of bird flu means you spend more in the checkout aisle and more on tax-funded cleanup, while the big companies reap more profit. What incentive do they have to quash this disease?

It’s not clear how quashable the virus is anyway. Mike Stepion, a USDA spokesperson, told me that the best form of protection is keeping wild birds separate from poultry. Wille, the virologist, agreed—noting that, for obvious reasons, this is hard to do with pasture-raised birds. The “pasture-raised” label does allow farmers to move their birds into barns for their safety, and Flocco said Pete and Gerry’s has asked farmers to do so whenever there is a nearby outbreak. That will inevitably happen more in the coming years.

I love eggs. I’ve always loved eggs. But they are one of the things I’ve given up until the industry comes up with ways to make its business model less cruel to chickens and less dangerous to humanity.

I haven’t given up all animal products. I might still get there. But eggs and chickens strike me as a problem that more of us should be worried about, even if we’re not inclined to be animal rights activists.

The abysmal conditions at most large chicken farming operations mean that avian flu will strike and require killing tens of millions of birds, and possibly lead to a strain of the virus that could jump to humans and cause the next big pandemic.

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