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Egg Shortage Hits Hard As Bird Flu Ravages

As a virulent avian influenza outbreak continues to spread across the midwestern United States, some egg-dependent companies are contemplating drastic steps – importing eggs from overseas or looking to egg alternatives.

A spokeswoman for Archer Daniels Midland Co said that as egg supplies tighten and prices rise, the food processing and commodities company has received numerous inquiries from manufacturers about the plant-based egg substitutes it makes.

With a strong dollar bolstering the buying power of U.S. importers, some companies are scouting for egg supplies abroad.

“The U.S. has never imported any significant amount of eggs, because we’ve always been a very low-cost producer,” said Tom Elam of FarmEcon, an agricultural consulting company. “Now, that’s no longer the case.”

The United States is grappling with its biggest outbreak of bird flu on record, which has led to the culling of 40 million birds. The virus has been confirmed on commercial farms and backyard flocks in 16 U.S. states and in Canada.

The highly infectious virus has not crossed over to humans in the United States, as it did in Asia following a 2003 outbreak, but transmission to humans is possible, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An industry group representing U.S. bakers began pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress this week to speed up approvals for egg imports.

“We have members whose egg suppliers are already cutting back how much they’ll receive in the next few weeks, while others are not getting any,” said Cory Martin, vice president of government relations for the American Bakers Association. “They’re looking for eggs everywhere. And the problem is, too, there’s not enough egg substitutes available right now to make up for the demand.”

Still, companies wanting to import eggs may have to look far afield.

“Canada is short on eggs and has been buying heavily from the U.S. for the last several years,” said Rick Brown, a senior vice president of Urner Barry, a commodity market analysis firm. “Mexico has been dealing with its own outbreaks of avian influenza, so they’re banned from importing into the U.S. The logical place people will be looking now would be Europe.”

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