Tim Bunch, owner of Longstreet Cafe, said eggs no longer return a profit at his longstanding Gainesville diner amid a national spike in egg prices.
He said he is paying nearly 4.5 times more for eggs since the summer, and while he is able to absorb most of that extra cost, he has to pass some of it onto his customers, whose mornings get a little cloudier when they notice the price of their sunny-side-up eggs.
“We hear it everyday,” Bunch said of diners griping about higher prices. “And we tell them, ‘Hey, go to the grocery store and buy some eggs.’”
He said eggs, traditionally a cheap source of animal protein, are no longer a profitable food item for his diner, which has been in business since 1997. Last summer, he paid $30 for 30 dozen eggs. Now, he’s paying $132.
“It’s been horrible on us,” he said. “We’ve had to raise the price about 20%, and that’s still not enough, but we don’t want to overcharge either.”
The national price of eggs has more than doubled in the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from $1.92 to $4.25 for a dozen large grade-A eggs.
Ben Campbell, associate professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Georgia, said the main driver of soaring egg prices is the bird flu outbreak, which emerged in commercial flocks last February in Indiana.
“The big driver is avian influenza, which has taken millions of birds out of the system,” Campbell said, though he added it would be difficult to quantify just how big an impact the bird flu is having relative to other factors, like increased input costs, supply chain disruptions and higher egg demand during the holiday season.
It is the deadliest bird flu outbreak in U.S. history, followed by the outbreak in 2015 when more than 50 million birds died.
The outbreak was caused by infected birds migrating from Europe that leave droppings as they fly over U.S. farms, said Louise Dufour-Zavala, executive director of the Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network, a Gainesville-based company that works with government agencies and other laboratories in the prevention, management and control of poultry disease outbreaks statewide.
“The source of the virus is wild birds,” Dufour-Zavala said. “And this year, instead of just a wild waterfowl being affected by this, it's about 140 species of birds. It’s tremendous.”
So far, nearly 58 million birds in hundreds of backyard and commercial flocks across 47 states have been affected by the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of those, more than 44 million have been egg-laying hens. There are about 325 million egg-laying hens in the U.S., according to the United Egg Producers.
But in Georgia, commercial flocks haven’t been touched by the bird flu, said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, a trade group that represents the poultry industry.
“We haven't been impacted in any commercial flocks, whether they’re egg or broiler, but there have been a significant number of laying hens that were impacted by avian influenza at various farms all over the country,” Giles said.
Table eggs account for only 5% of Georgia’s poultry production, compared to 90% for broiler chickens sold as meat, according to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
“It is a U.S. egg market, and it's a commodity, so when prices go up across the state line, they're going up here too,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “It takes months and months to repopulate those egg houses, so a major avian influenza outbreak in Iowa affects national egg prices.”
“Current egg prices reflect many factors, most of which are outside the control of an egg farmer,” the American Egg Board said in a statement. “Eggs are bought and sold on the commodity market, where farmers don’t set the price of eggs — the market does.”
But some suspect foul play and say the rise in egg prices outweighs the losses in production caused by the bird flu.
“We haven't had any breakouts in our area with our supplier and we've even talked to the supplier, ‘Hey, why?’” Bunch said. His supplier argues they have to follow national pricing, but he said the price increase is still unjustified. “In the end, all they’re doing is gouging everybody.”
Bunch’s egg supplier, Performance Food Group in Oakwood, could not be reached.
Tom Oliver, owner of Chestnut Mountain Egg Farms in Flowery Branch, the egg farm that supplies PFG’s eggs, said even though he hasn’t had any bird flu outbreaks, they sell eggs across the country and have to follow market pricing, though he declined to say how much he is charging PFG and how many eggs he sells.
“We have a company that quotes the market on table eggs,” Oliver said. “It’s the standard in industry.”
Farm Action, a farmer-led nonprofit that fights against monopolization in the agriculture industry, urged the Federal Trade Commission in a Jan. 19 letter to investigate the egg industry for price gouging and monopolistic behavior.
Farm Action wrote that “the real culprit” behind the rise in egg prices “appears to be a collusive scheme among industry leaders to turn inflationary conditions and an avian flu outbreak into an opportunity to extract egregious profits.”
The USDA noted in a 2022 report that the increase in egg prices was “much larger than the decreases in production,” which “reflects the inelastic nature of the demand for eggs,” meaning people will continue to buy eggs even when prices rise. That gives egg companies more power to raise prices without triggering a drop in demand.
“When you have only a handful of companies controlling each section along the food supply chain … they're like, ‘Well, let's see how far we can go,’” said Sarah Carden, senior policy advocate for Farm Action. “Egg demand is pretty inelastic, and we've seen that. Look how far they’ve been able to push it.”
Jess Feldman, owner of Baked & Caked, a cottage bakery in Gainesville, said she usually buys her eggs from Sam’s Club, but she has tried to hunt down the cheapest offerings, even switching to regular eggs after the price of organic eggs “skyrocketed.”
Despite her best efforts, she has had to raise prices for certain products.
“Some cakes don't require as many eggs, so with a basic vanilla cake, I would leave it at the same price,” Feldman said. “But if another cake calls for more eggs, like a German chocolate cake, it will go up $5.”
A German chocolate cake will now run you $55 at Baked & Caked, but Feldman says her customers are sympathetic to the rise in egg prices, adding that she is also paying more for dairy products these days.
“People that haven't worked with me before will be like, ‘Wow, that's really expensive,’ but the customers of mine that have stayed with me from the get go, they understand,” she said.
There are signs that egg prices may start to come down soon, according to the American Egg Board. “The good news is that we’re already seeing wholesale prices drop following peak holiday demand, and we anticipate that lower retail prices will follow.”
But experts say there is a lot of uncertainty and predict that the virus will stick around for a while, especially if the outbreak in Europe provides any clues. Europe has been ravaged by the “most devastating” bird flu outbreak ever, the European Union says.
“I think we're in for another two or three years,” Dufour-Zavala, the Poultry Lab expert, said. “If we look at what happened in Europe in 2021-22, they're still at it, and the migratory birds moved from Europe to here, so they bring new viruses every migration season.”
“In the spring, we're probably going to have an uptick of cases,” she said. “We’re not out of it yet.”