Soaring egg prices: bird flu is mostly, but not completely, to blame

Inflation, demand and labor costs also factor into the increase

Three cartons of large eggs from three chain grocery store in the Joliet area sit on the kitchen table of the home of Denise M. Baran-Unland, Herald-News features editor. All were purchased on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, show varying prices in the $4 range.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles about rising egg prices that have put a significant dent in consumers’ family budgets. This article focuses on why egg prices have risen significantly. The second article which will run Friday, will focus on how more eateries and consumers are dealing with the rising costs of eggs.

If the cost of eggs are breaking the household budget, also consider the effect on the restaurant industry.

Tom Grotovsky, owner of The Great American Bagel in Joliet, said eggs are costing about 50 cents apiece right now and he uses about 1,000 eggs a week.

That doesn’t even include the eggs he adds to salads and the liquid egg mixture that goes into bagels, Grotovsky said.

“We haven’t done a price increase yet,” Grotovsky said. “But we are working on it because of that.”

His top selling sandwiches are bacon egg and cheese and sausage, egg and cheese, he said. Each sandwich has two egg patties, so the sandwich costs $1 before the cost of the bagel, meats, cheese, sandwich wrap, napkins and the bag, Grotovksy said.

“There’s hardly any profit left in that,” Grotovksy said.

That’s before paying his 11 employees, rent and utilities, his delivery service and buying any items in town he can’t get from his supplies, he said.

Grotovsky said his expenses are nearly $15,000 a week in just food and labor. Restaurants aren’t as profitable as people think, he said.

“We’re just a little store here,” Grotovsky said.

Tom Grotovsky, owner of Great American Bagel, looks over an order with Chely Castillo at his Joliet location on Essington Road.

Northern Illinois University’s economics department chairman and economist Carl Campbell said he knows why this is all happening.

”The main reason is the avian flu that’s killed a significant number of the bird population,” Campbell said. “So supply of eggs is diminished, and as a result the prices have gone up substantially.”

How long might this situation last?

”Avian flu is going to decline at some point, and as that declines we’ll have more healthy chickens and that’ll bring down egg prices,” Campbell said. “Some data shows egg prices have fallen by about 13% in the last few weeks, so I think we are starting to go down.”

How exactly are prices affected when a supply shortage occurs?

“When there’s an egg or any supply shortage, that means there aren’t enough eggs to go around to meet previous demand,” Campbell said. “That means egg producers can raise prices and still sell all the eggs they produce. Trying to maximize profit, they would raise prices. So the middle man pays more to cover costs. And the grocery store passes that [increased cost] on to the consumer.”

Cartons of eggs sit on the shelf at Gordon Food Service in Joliet. A national shortage of eggs has cause sharp rise in egg prices.

It’s complicated: multiple reasons for soaring egg prices

Joliet Junior College culinary arts department chairman Michael McGreal attributes the increase in egg prices to several factors: the ongoing bird flu crisis, high demand and persistent supply chain problems.

The current bird flu outbreak is the worst in U.S. history, with millions of birds dead since early 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nearly 60 million birds have been killed so far, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

McGreal said chickens quickly spread the virus, which is why any time one chicken tests positive, it quickly is isolated.

“Infected birds shed bird flu virus through their saliva, mucous and feces,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickens then can contract the virus when pecking through other birds’ waste for leftover seeds and kernels, McGreal said.

However, if the bird flu is contributing to high egg prices and egg shortages, why isn’t chicken meat affected to the same degree?

Chickens raised for eggs and chickens bred for muscle meat are two separate industries, McGreal said.

Although it is true that chickens are housed closely together in both cases – which easily can foster the spread of bird flu – chickens raised for muscle meat go to market in just six weeks, so the opportunities for chickens getting sick are reduced, McGreal said. By contrast, farmers who raise hens for eggs keep them for several years.

He said it is similar to people visiting for dinner and staying as house guests for three months – visitors simply have more opportunities for contracting a virus.

Although chickens raised for muscle meat don’t necessarily peck through the other chickens’ waste, wild birds do. Wild birds carry the virus to their nests and other parts of the U.S., dropping particles along the way, McGreal said.

“That’s why we eradicate them as quickly as possible,” McGreal said.

McGreal said he’s watched videos of the culling with flame torches.

“Once one bird tests positive, they destroy the whole flock,” McGreal said. “They can literally destroy hundreds of thousands of birds in one day.”

Although it might be heartbreaking to consider the culling, McGreal said it is necessary to kill the bacteria because “you never know what other chicken it came in contact with.”

When demand for eggs starting rising in 2020, people sheltering in place cooked and baked more to save money and engage with their kids, McGreal said.

“Even if you use a boxed cake mix, you still need eggs,” McGreal said.

Inflation also has increased demand for eggs since they historically are an inexpensive protein source, McGreal said. Supply chain problems for packaging and transportation all factor into cost and shortages, McGreal said.

The days of $1.20 per carton of eggs probably are gone

Now Grotovksy said he expects egg prices to decrease a bit, he said the days of $1.20 per carton of eggs probably are gone, even after the current bird flu crisis dissipates.

Cartons of eggs sit on the shelf at Gordon Food Service in Joliet. A national shortage of eggs has cause sharp rise in egg prices.

Grotovksy said his family has a chicken farm in Michigan with 1 million chickens and the cost of labor has doubled in the past 20 years, he said. The amount of labor it requires to feed, water and clean up after 1 million chickens is a lot, he said.

“The labor rates are high in everything,” he said. “Chicken farming is one type of farming. Crop farming is how you feed your chickens. If you don’t have feed, your chickens aren’t going to survive.”

One silver lining is that bird flu isn’t a problem in Will County simply because the county isn’t a big egg producer, according to Mark Schneidewind, manager of the Will County Farm Bureau.

“Right now we don’t have livestock in Will County, which includes chicken,” Schneidewind said. “There used to be large egg farmers near Kankakee and the surrounding areas but not for several years.”

However, even farmers with 40 to 100 chickens are being inundated with calls from people hoping to buy eggs for less than the $4.50- to $7-price range in local stores, Schneidewind said.

“These people are pretty well sold out too,” mainly with their existing customers, Schneidewind said. “Even the ones that do have chickens use them for home use or family use. They might have four or five dozen every other week for some people.”

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.

Denise  Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.