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Egg prices on the rise: the effects of animal diseases

18 million tons, that is the weight of chicken eggs produced every year worldwide. Largely consumed for their protein intake, eggs are produced in sufficient quantities to meet the demand of all inhabitants of the planet and, very importantly, are available at a relatively cheap price compared to meat. However, their average cost has been rising lately, specifically in Europe and in North America, where production  costs have risen dramatically, and millions of laying hens have been infected with avian influenza since last October.  

For every inhabitant in the world, there is a laying hen producing eggs: we have enough to go around.

Ben Dellaert, Chairman of the avian influenza expert group, International Egg Commission (IEC)

According to the European Commission, egg prices have soared by around 22% in Europe and by 44% in the USA, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), compared to last year. Increased costs throughout the supply chain and the current lessened availability of feed and grains directly affected this rise in prices. However, avian influenza, or bird flu, has also played an undeniable part in this phenomenon in those regions, according to Ben Dellaert, from the International Egg Commission (IEC).

Bird flu is a severe viral disease that mainly affects poultry and wild birds, often causing death among flocks and leading to devastating socioeconomic impacts. Since October 2021, over 21 million cases in poultry were reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, founded as OIE) in several regions of the world. Compared to previous years, this significant number is higher, and more birds have died.

Once bird flu hits a poultry farm, the disease can very easily spread among birds, and actions must be taken to mitigate its rapid transmission. One of the main containment measures is to cull birds that are infected but also healthy ones that are at risk of acquiring the disease, because of potential direct or indirect contact with infected birds. This year, some outbreaks have led to the culling of thousands of birds. For example, the Netherlands reported 33,000 cases of bird flu and, in order to mitigate its spread, over 2 million domesticated birds were put to death. This inevitably affects the egg production capacity. High mortality among laying hens, whether due to the disease itself or the culling measures, has a direct consequence on the number of eggs that can be produced. Looking closer at the USA’s case, the country has now lost 25 million laying hens, reducing their total egg production by 8%. This drop in production capacity causes a financial loss for egg producers, thus leading to a rise in egg prices.  

As they are often the first group affected by this issue, we need to reflect on the impacts this type of disease has on farmers. While it is normal to consider the financial effects on farmers as they suffer a decrease in their activity and income due to the impact of avian influenza on their flock, there are secondary effects too. Ben Dellaert from IEC reminds us of the additional emotional impact:

When your animals die of this disease, and you have to get rid of them, it’s always a terrible thing to experience for the farmer.

Ben Dallert, Chairman of the avian influenza expert group, International Egg Commission (IEC)

Furthermore, when your farm has not yet been infected with bird flu, you also live with this constant threat that it might get to your birds. 

Besides eggs, we can also expect other commodities, like poultry meat, to become less available and more expensive for the same reasons. This situation shows us that animal diseases, such as bird flu, can disrupt livelihoods and economies and threaten food security worldwide. Putting in place prevention measures, such as setting up appropriate surveillance and enhancing biosecurity in farms, is therefore key to avoid further negative impacts.