What is the true cost of an egg?
People are scratching their heads in grocery store aisles across the country—some in shock over egg prices that seem to have doubled overnight and some in disbelief that shelves are empty.
The price of eggs hinges upon the latest news headlines. Inflation, supply chain issues, increased consumer demand, and the labor shortage all impact access to this fragile, gold-filled shell.
In the past year alone, egg prices have risen by 50%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index. A dozen Grade A large eggs should cost about $4.25 when adjusted for annual inflation but at grocery stores throughout the county, conventional eggs are marked as high as $8.99.
“The cost of everything has gone up: chicks, feed, water, labor, gas, cartons, and other supplies,” says Nick Jaquez of Three Sons Farm, which sells eggs and chicken at the Leucadia, Carlsbad, and Pacific Beach farmers’ markets. This led the family to raise the price of a dozen of their pasture-raised eggs to $9, which he says is a fair market price.
“Our production model has the most cost in labor and time [compared to other models],” Jaquez explains. “Everyone has the same materials. We’re moving every day and doing a lot more animal care—we feed and water by hand.”
Compounding price is an increase in Americans’ appetite for eggs. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), beef and venison consumption has gone down while egg consumption has gone up. Americans consumed an average of 293 eggs per person in 2019, and nearly 80% of them came from caged hens producing eggs in CAFOs.
Both Three Sons Farms and Da-Le Ranch have run out of eggs at recent markets. They cite a higher demand and people choosing farmers’ market stands over grocery stores to fulfill their egg needs.
“We were selling out regularly before [the shortage], so it’s created a frenzy,” says Jaquez. “Everything sells out way faster and to people who are not our usual customers.”
Egg prices last spiked during the 2015 avian flu outbreak. Avian flu is spread by migratory birds like ducks who get into backyard chicken coops and farms, infecting flocks through feces, saliva, and contact through infected surfaces. If even one chicken in a domesticated flock is infected, all of the birds in the flock need to be culled.
As of January 18, 2023, 58 million birds in 47 states have been killed due to the current avian flu outbreak (CDC). One outbreak impacting a flock of 150 birds has occurred in recent months in San Diego County (CDC).
Three Sons’ off-grid farm is more management intensive, but thanks to the pasture-raised techniques, lack of neighboring farms, and the fact that all of the workers are family members with no exposure to other farms, Jaquez says the farm is more biosecure.
Dave Heafner of Da-Le Ranch says he hasn’t felt the impacts of the most recent virus but that past viruses are still impacting the market.
“One guy I know lost 35,000 birds,” he says of a 2019 Newcastle outbreak in Southern California. “If one bird got it, all of them would get it—it would move through your entire flock.”
Some of the farmers who hadn’t prepared lost their farms or went out of business.
“Every time you lose a major producer it takes a long time for a new farmer to rebuild and get up to that [previous] production level,” says Heafner. “It may be a 10-year effort.”
Heafner shares that farmers were still trying to recover from that Newcastle virus when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. People stopped working and one result was there weren’t enough people incubating chicks: a chicken labor shortage.
“I used to buy five or six hundred birds from several hatcheries—now I can’t get them anymore because nobody’s raising them (chicks),” says Heafner.
Experts say it could take months for the latest impacted chicken stocks to replenish, meaning egg prices could remain high into the summer.
This is the perfect time for us to reset egg costs—so consumers and grocery stores pay what they’re actually worth. The true cost of food has been disguised over time making entire industries less resilient when disasters strike. The reality is that egg prices don’t exist in a bubble—they are impacted by anything and everything impacting supply and demand.
It’s cliché, but know and support your local farmers and take opportunities to visit the farms to consider all the inputs and see where your eggs come from. Then think about what price we should expect to pay for eggs.
The definitions below are outlined by the USDA.
Pasture-raised or free-range
This is probably the idyllic image you have in your head of an egg farm. Eggs are from hens raised outdoors or with access to outdoors. In addition to feed, they may eat wild plants and insects.
This means hens are uncaged and free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. Hens are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers.
Hens can roam in a room or open area, which is typically an indoor barn or poultry house. All eggs produced in California should meet this criteria.
All eggs are natural and meet this criteria.
Local eggs (from within 400 miles or the state) are marketed through direct sales to consumers (e.g., CSAs, farmers’ markets, on-farm stores, or pick-your-own), food hubs, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and other outlets. Community benefits include support for local farmers, job creation, economic diversification, attracting reinvestment and growth, keeping food dollars within the local economy, and reducing food insecurity.
Eggs are graded based on their whites and yolks. Grade A and AA have thick whites that are good for frying, while Grade B eggs spread and are better for use in omelets and baked goods.
1. Get your own chickens
But be sure to safeguard your flock from diseases.
2. Eat more egg replacements
Just Egg is made of mung beans and can replace scrambled eggs in breakfast dishes and baked goods but broken-up tofu from San Diego Soy Dairy makes for a good scramble as well. You can also make your own egg alternative by combining a tablespoon of ground flax or chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water—use a 1:3 ratio.
3. Sign up for an egg CSA or CSA that offers eggs
Three Sons Farm offers weekly egg delivery and farms like Garden of Eden Organics sells eggs at CSA drop sites. Local garden projects like Community Roots Farm also have chicken (and duck eggs) available to buy.
4. Try alternative eggs
5. Keep eating chicken.
Chicken impacted by avian flu shouldn’t become part of the food supply, but if it somehow does, it is safe to eat as long as it’s cooked properly.
The title of this article is inspired by The Golden Egg, available at read.gov/aesop/091.html.