DES MOINES, Iowa — In less than a year, eggs have gone from being an expensive staple at the height of the bird flu crisis to reaching the cheapest prices in a decade due to fully restocked poultry barns.
But the demand for eggs has been stifled because bakeries and companies using powdered eggs in things like pancake mixes learned to cook without as many of them, and countries that stopped accepting eggs from the U.S. last year, including Canada and Mexico, have been slow to resume imports.
"People have found ways to reduce their egg usage as an ingredient. They've found replacers, they've found extenders and they've found ways to make certain products with fewer eggs in general," said Brian Moscoguiri, an industry analyst at New Jersey-based commodity market research company Urner Barry.
While wholesale egg prices — a little as 55 cents a dozen in June — are good for grocery shoppers' pocketbooks, the egg industry itself was caught off guard by the imbalance, according to Bill Northey, the agriculture secretary in Iowa, which is the nation's largest egg-producing state.
The lack of exports hurts the most, said Marcus Rust, CEO of Rose Acre Farms, which is the nation's No. 2 egg producer. Prior to the bird flu outbreak last spring, which led to the deaths of 48 million chickens and turkeys, U.S. egg producers exported as much as 6 percent of their stock. Now, it's closer to 3 percent, Rust said.
"Across the pond they found other suppliers and have contracts," he said. "For us to get them back, we'd have to boot somebody else out."
For two months starting in mid-April 2015, the H5N2 virus ravaged chicken farms in Iowa and wiped out 12 percent of the country's egg-laying hens. By May 2015, egg production had fallen 28 percent from the previous year and 21 percent in just a month.
Demand, however, remained strong and the scarcity drove prices to record highs: In early August 2015, Midwestern grocery stores paid $2.88 per dozen for large eggs.
The new chickens replacing those that were lost to bird flu are young and producing at their peak. Rust's Iowa farms, where he restocked about 3 million chickens, are producing at about 10 percent more than normal. But the glut of eggs means grocers are trying to move eggs off shelves with prices not seen in years and farmers have sent some egg-laying hens to slaughter.
Three weeks ago, wholesale egg prices hit a 10-year low of 55 cents a dozen, and the number of shell eggs available as of Monday was the highest ever seen this time of year, Moscoguiri said. Prices have rebounded to "about 98 cents per dozen," he said.
Current trading supports prices in the 60-cent range and Rust said he wouldn't be surprised to see them remain there for the short term. He also said the market it will work itself out.
The bakery industry was widely affected by the egg scarcity last year, including Blue Egg Bakery in Elk River, Minnesota. Owner Robin DeWitt said distributors rationed supply, meaning at times she could get only half of what she needed, forcing her to buy at grocery stores for full retail price.
She said she didn't raise prices on her cakes, doughnuts, cookies and bread, so her profits dropped. And while larger commercial bakeries could get by with egg substitutes, she would not.
"We're a scratch bakery and there just isn't a substitute for eggs. We searched out and got them wherever we could," she said. "We stockpiled eggs and we survived."
Follow David Pitt on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/davepitt.