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Egg Shortages Caused By Bird Flu Continue

Prices for shelled eggs at the grocery store have more than doubled in some areas.
Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media

Even as government officials brace for a recurrence of bird flu this fall, the massive spring outbreak is still affecting food producers.

Kansas City residents, flocking to local favorite Sheridan’s frozen custard stands because of this week’s heat wave, are met with notices that the custard recipe has been changed because of an egg shortage.

“Federal regulations require frozen custard to contain at least 1.4 percent egg solids by weight,” the signs say. “Due to the egg shortage caused by the avian influenza outbreak, our dairy is currently unable to purchase enough eggs to meet that standard, requiring a slight change in our product recipe."

Highly pathogenic H5N2 flu decimated Iowa’s egg industry this spring, as the outbreak hit laying hens in the large production facilities there. Turkeys, mostly in Minnesota, were also hit, and ultimately, 48 million birds were destroyed.

Prices for eggs hit a record $2.48 a dozen and are expected to increase come fall, when the holiday baking season kicks in, according to Bloomberg News. Bird flu affected bakers and other food producers as early as June, as Harvest Public Media reported for NPR, because much of Iowa’s facilities are called “breaker” operations – the eggs are broken right there on the farm and made into what’s sold as “liquid egg.”

Meanwhile, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Iowa this week, warning that a fall outbreak could be equally devastating and that the government is planning for the worst.

  Criticized for what many farmers said was a slow response by the USDA in the spring, Vilsack offered promising news on a vaccine. A “seed strain” that is 100 percent effective for chickens has been developed and will soon be produced, he said. 

"I don't want to say exactly how long that's going to take. But I'll tell you we are in a much better space than we were, say, six months ago, or six weeks ago when all we had was a vaccine that was 60 percent effective. And that's really not good enough,” he said.

The vaccine's success rate in turkeys is unknown. Vaccination complicates trade since some countries won't import poultry products from inoculated birds.

Vilsack also said he’s working to identify potential disposal sites for bird carcasses affected by the virus. Some poultry producers have complained that removing euthanized birds took too long and many landfills were resistant to take them.          

"There are needs for us to take a look on how we can depopulate in the quickest and most humane way possible to avoid the additional spread [of bird flu,]" Vilsack said. "Figure out what the permitting processing is for moving birds, for disposing birds, for dealing with landfills.”

Of the 211 commercial facilities hit by the virus nationwide this year, roughly 90 sites have finished cleaning and disinfecting and nearly 70 have begun restocking, Vilsack said.

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.
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