A sign posted Tuesday on the egg case at Shaw’s grocery store in Auburn advises customers of a national shortage. Sun Journal staff photo

AUBURN — The sign posted on the egg case at Shaw’s supermarket on Center Street warns a national egg shortage is affecting pricing and availability.

To be clear, there were plenty of eggs in the case, with noticeably higher prices and some empty spaces for specific brands or types of eggs. The federal government and the industry acknowledge egg prices are rising sharply and may be in short supply at times through the end of the year.

Steve Vendemia, president of Hillandale Farms Conn, said there are a combination of factors but bird flu is the primary reason for the situation. He said the last time the industry saw a similar situation was in 2015, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 50 million chickens and turkeys in the U.S. died of highly pathogenic avian influenza or were destroyed to stop the spread of the disease. That represented about 12% of the egg-laying population of chickens, resulting in a 61% increase in egg prices.

This time, Vendemia said, 30 million of the layer population was culled after bird flu affected the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions, or between 12 and 13% of the hen population.

Several chicken barns are seen Tuesday at Hillandale Farms Conn on Plains Road in Turner. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Hillandale Farms is one of the largest suppliers of shell eggs to retailers and suppliers in the country, with a facility still operating in Turner, although at a reduced rate from previous years. Vendemia explained the farm was not established as a cage-free facility and would have been prohibitively expensive to convert. Hillandale Farms has established a larger cage-free farm in Connecticut, closer to major metropolitan areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s weekly egg market overview for July 1 cites a combination of flock replacements and hot weather in production areas as limiting available supply of larger eggs. The national retail price for conventional large, white eggs was $1.99, while the national price for large, brown, cage-free eggs was $2.84. The low price for both so far this year was $0.86 and $1.11, respectively.

Vendemia explained the outbreak of bird flu this year coincided with the migration of wild birds along two flyways — the mid-Atlantic and Missouri — hitting the largest egg producers in the country. Pullets, or baby hens, were affected this year as well, extending the recovery time. Finally, liquid egg suppliers have put a further squeeze on supply by turning to the open market to meet their needs, pushing prices up further.

The good news is that bird flu is waning and the majority of farms are repopulating their flocks after disinfecting their facilities. It normally takes about 20 weeks for chicks to grow into egg-laying hens. Vendemia said that translates into about six months where consumers can expect sporadic tightening of supply and price increases. Prices should begin to moderate in the fourth quarter of the year.

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