68M birds killed by virus since Feb. 2022
NEW YORK -- Egg and turkey prices are down. But a deadly bird flu is still threatening poultry flocks, turkey in particular.
So while breakfast is likely to stay cheap, get ready for more expensive turkey sandwiches.
Last year, a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) devastated chicken flocks, with egg-laying hens bearing the brunt. The virus was one reason for the massive spike in egg prices. But this year, the virus got off to a slow start, allowing egg supplies to bounce back.
The current outbreak of HPAI hit the United States in February 2022, and ripped through poultry farms across the country. By the end of last year, about 60 million birds had been killed because of the virus. Today, the total tally is up to about 68 million, a sign that the disease has slowed, but not disappeared, in 2023.
After a mostly virus-free start to the year, cases started ticking up in the fall. In the past month, Iowa farms have killed over 2.8 million birds this season due to the virus. Earlier in November, an Ohio egg farm slaughtered over 1.3 million birds because of the flu.
"Nationally, we are seeing an uptick, again, in some commercial premises across the US," Dennis Summers, Ohio's state veterinarian and chief of the state's division of animal health, said in an interview with CNN.
In the US, the deadly flu has been spreading as wild birds migrate south this fall. If they land and mingle with backyard flocks, or their droppings are dragged into chicken coops, the virus can be introduced to commercial operations, he explained. When that happens, the entire flock is eradicated to prevent the disease from spreading.
The fall migratory season lasts until about the end of the year, said Summers. So what happens in the next month or so will help determine the trajectory of the virus this year, and how many more farms are affected.
"We're just hoping that we can hold on and get through this until (the flu) mutates to a non-pathogenic form," Summers said. "And then we can go from there."
Even with millions of chickens culled at egg farms, there are plenty of eggs this year, said Emily Metz, president and CEO of the American Egg Board, a farmer-funded group that is dedicated to increasing US demand for eggs.
"We've seen some small-scale outbreaks so far on a few egg farms," she said. "Supply is strong, there's plenty of eggs." According to the USDA, egg production was up 4% in October compared to last year.
As egg supplies bounced back, prices have fallen, declining about 22% in the 12 months through October, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So far, many of the egg farms where the virus was detected - and birds culled - have been focused on selling whites and yolks to food makers, rather than to grocery stores as shell eggs, noted Ryan Hojnowski, egg market analyst and reporter for Urner Barry, which publishes market information.
With these factors in mind, prices are unlikely to skyrocket again. "It doesn't seem like there's a catalyst as of right now, this second, that is pointing toward a price action being anything what it was like last year," said Hojnowski. Still, he said, it's a "very fluid situation."
But when it comes to turkey, price hikes are on the horizon.
This year, turkey prices were low ahead of Thanksgiving - partially because turkey farmers expected an outbreak in the spring that didn't really happen, boosting turkey supplies, explained Matt Busardo, poultry market reporter at Urner Barry. But the uptick of bird flu cases has hit turkey farms hard, and threatens to tighten supply in groceries this spring.
"Just since October, there's been two and a half million or so turkey losses," Busardo noted. Most of those were "meat birds," he said - headed to slaughter to be turned into deli meat, rather than sold as whole birds for roasting.
"When spring rolls around and everyone wants to get their turkey clubs... that's what this impacts the most," he said. "What we're seeing now shows that there's going to be a tighter supply come spring."
In Minnesota, roughly 1.6 million birds have been killed in the last month, many of them turkeys.
The state is especially vulnerable to bird flu because of its geographic properties, noted Ohio's Summers. "There's tons of lakes and ponds up there," he said. "So those migratory birds will land."
If migrations slow - as they very well may, thanks to frigid weather - infections could also, lessening the impact on turkey supply and prices.
In general this year, "bird losses ... are quite small relative to last year's impact," said Christine McCracken, senior animal protein analyst at Rabobank. "However, timing is everything," she said, noting that there could "be some spot shortages and/or pricing volatility given the potential for regional losses."
Busardo doesn't expect turkey prices to surge as much as they did with eggs. In part that's because unlike eggs, turkey isn't a kitchen staple - meaning that higher prices could just lead people to skip that turkey sandwich after all.