Cracking Open the Issue of High Egg Prices

Food & Drink

Corporate consolidation in our food system is going on without most of us knowing. Massive companies are controlling a greater and greater proportion of food production. And at a time when we urgently need to be taking steps forward in protecting our climate, biodiversity, and workers, this sort of industrialization is actively pushing us backward.

Take eggs, for example.

Egg prices have shot through the roof. In the average U.S. city, in fact, the price of a dozen eggs has more than doubled over the past year. As a source of protein, eggs are easy to prepare and typically fairly inexpensive, so this is really hitting people where it hurts.

Let’s break down why this is happening, why it’s especially bad right now, and what we can do about it.

Ask major egg producers, and they’ll cite the bird flu, or highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). And to be crystal clear, avian flu—which is slamming commercial farms here in the U.S. for the first time since 2020—is a very real pain point for farmers of all sizes.

It’s often fatal to chickens that catch it, but it’s devastating for the whole farm, too: To quarantine the disease after cases are confirmed, tragically, farmers often have to kill affected flocks to properly eliminate the virus. And over the past year, the virus spread to 47 U.S. states and infected more than 58 million birds—about a quarter of which were in Iowa, the state hit hardest.

But the industry’s numbers don’t quite line up. In a recent open letter to the Federal Trade Commission, the nonprofit Farm Action alleges that the country’s dominant egg producers are using the avian flu as an excuse to engage in “apparent price gouging, price coordination, and other unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

One of the country’s largest egg producers is Cal-Maine Foods
CALM
, which controls about 20 percent of the egg market through brands like Eggland’s Best and Land O’Lakes eggs. Their gross profits, Farm Action notes, were up over 600 percent compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, even during the avian flu outbreak in 2020, the USDA’s Economic Research Service noted that egg price increases were “much larger than the decreases in production” caused by avian flu.

It’s worth noting that the egg industry in the U.S. isn’t quite as tightly consolidated as other sectors. We see the top 10 egg producers controlling about half the country’s eggs. By comparison, in the pork industry, the top four companies are responsible for about 70 percent of the market. In beef, it’s 80 percent of the market that’s controlled by the top four companies, as Chloe Sorvino points out in her new book Raw Deal.

Consolidation in the egg industry is leading to serious supply chain vulnerabilities, the Open Markets Institute reports, and it’s hurting the animals. As with any pathogenic disease, whether Covid-19 or avian flu, infections spread much more rapidly in tightly crowded conditions—like ones we see on highly concentrated and industrialized poultry farms.

The avian flu is very real, but price surges on eggs don’t need to be this extreme. Inflation is already creating more suffering all around the world, and policies limiting access to school meals, SNAP, and other aid are hurting food security. Seeing these allegations against companies like Cal-Maine Foods, Rose Acre Farms, Versova Holdings, and others isn’t just a pet peeve—it’s infuriating, and we need to call them out.

At the same time, I want to give props to some of the good players in this space, too. Do Good Foods—started by our friends Justin and Matthew Kamine and supported by stakeholders like chefs and advocates Sam Kass and Tom Colicchio—is producing more sustainable chicken by creating high-quality feed out of ingredients that would’ve otherwise been wasted. I also love Vital Farms, based in Austin but available all over the country; those are the eggs in my fridge right now.

We are also big fans of Kipster, a European company that recently began operations in the U.S. They’re raising chickens and producing eggs in a carbon-neutral way that’s congruent with good animal welfare and the birds’ natural behaviors—which you can see on their 24/7 livestreamed farm cameras. I’m also optimistic about grocery stores like Kroger
KR
, which are supporting Kipster eggs (under the Simple Truth + Kipster label) and other sustainability and traceability efforts around the country. I know not everything about Kroger is perfect, but I think it’s important to give commendation where it’s due.

Prices are certainly up across the board, and they’ve always been a little higher for organic or sustainably produced eggs and other protein. But if you’re able to help make sure the good players get the support they need, it goes a long way.

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