Bird flu is hitting U.S. industrial egg production hard, driving up costs for businesses and consumers.
The Magnolia Cafe moves a lot of breakfast. Both of its locations in Austin are open 24 hours a day, and both of them serve up migas, omelets, breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros—eggs any way you like—around the clock.
In fact, the Magnolia Cafe on South Congress goes through a whopping 14,760 eggs each and every week. “That’s what you call job security,” says Jeff Musgrave, floor manager for the restaurant.
Making all of those delicious breakfast dishes is going to set Magnolia back many dollars this summer: A crushing outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5, or bird flu, is starting to really whomp on the U.S. Some 47 million birds have died or have been slaughtered, including a huge portion of egg-laying birds in the Midwest.
For Magnolia, the price of eggs has nearly doubled, jumping from $18 to $34 per case. “We’re not buying any less,” Musgrave says. “We’re just going to eat the cost increase.”
Austin is a city that means it when it says that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Breakfast tacos are the city’s claim to fame, rivaled only by its legendary live-music scene, gorgeous natural setting, and superior barbecue smokehouses. (Life is good in Austin.) So it was a serious cause for alarm when a friend back home told me that Mi Madre’s—the place that dishes up the best breakfast tacos in the whole city—no longer serves eggs after 11 a.m.
H.E.B., the city’s most prominent grocery chain, is keeping its cool. But at all of its Austin stores as well as Central Market, the company’s prestige chain, H.E.B. is limiting customers to three cartons of eggs per purchase.
“Our goal is to hold prices as low as possible and level out the volatility in the egg market for our customers,” says Dya C. Campos, director of public affairs for H.E.B. “Posting limits on the purchase of eggs is a proactive move to keep prices low and availability strong for Texas families.”
Mostly it’s a way to keep local commercial buyers—i.e., restaurants—from buying out all the eggs. The issue facing restaurants such as Magnolia, which sources its eggs locally, is not a dip in supply but a spike in demand. So far, its suppliers are unaffected by avian flu directly, Musgrave tells me. But with other supply chains interrupted, these local suppliers are simply seeing a lot more orders.
The egg crisis may get worse before it gets better. Since the start of the avian flu outbreak in December, most of the cases have been clustered in the Midwest. The virus only just touched down in Michigan. Avian flu has yet to spread to Pennsylvania, the nation’s third-leading producer of eggs and fourth-leading producer of chickens, but the bug is on its way. (High egg prices have already arrived, unfortunately, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
The costs of this egg crisis are already enormous. Fighting the spread of bird flu—and compensating poultry farmers for their losses, of course—may cost more than half a billion dollars, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. That doesn’t even count whatever the poultry industry winds up spending to try to stave off the disease. Researchers at the University of Minnesota don’t know how to contain the spread of this unprecedented virus.
There are fates worse than a breakfast taco drawdown: If avian flu were to make the leap across species from bird to human, as this strain did during its 1996 debut, then hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people could potentially die. Come to think of it, there’s an outbreak of canine influenza sweeping the Midwest right now, too. Maybe it is time to panic.
Once every bird and beast in the nation has the flu, how long can we humans really expect to hold out? Austin: Please save some eggs for my last meal.
Photo by C.C. Chapman/Flickr Creative Commons.