An Egg Crisis and Corporate Greed
(Mix Well for Expensive Omelettes and Rural Bad News)
Yesterday, I published an article about the uber-high price of eggs and the consolidated industry that’s created those prices. You can read it here.
Shoppers everywhere are affected by these high prices, so how is this a rural story? Well, there are a number of reasons.
The obvious one: rural shoppers have lower incomes than the rest of the nation – an average per capita income of $45,917 versus the nationwide per capita average of $59,510, according to 2020 data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. High food prices have a disproportionate impact on rural people who often don’t have much choice when it comes to grocery stores near their homes. And the biggest egg companies are profiting off of their lack of options.
As Sarah Carden, senior policy advocate at the organization Farm Action, said in a Daily Yonder interview, “[these companies] can do it because they know that eggs are an integral part of our Americans’ diets and it’s not something that is easy for people to forego in their shopping.”
Sometimes, you need some eggs. And these days, it’s gonna cost you.
The less obvious reason egg prices are a rural story: rural communities are often the first to feel the strain of consolidating industries, which is when companies merge together to streamline their operations processes. This can lead to just a handful of corporations dominating an industry, which decreases competition. The egg industry is one of the most consolidated sectors of food, according to the USDA-funded Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
In the capitalist’s ideal free market, when one company ups their prices, another company should move in to take their market share, filling the price gap the former company created.
But in our current, not-very-free market, this type of competition just isn’t happening.
This is particularly true in agriculture, where big corporations have edged-out the small farmer by merging with other companies to up their production and decrease their cost of business, and the cost of their products. Small farmers just can’t compete with the prices big operations can afford.
None of this is good for rural communities.
As agriculture operations consolidate, rural places where small-scale farming was pivotal to the local economy are dying. “Numerous studies in the last 50 years show that the consolidation and industrialization of agriculture operations in rural communities has resulted in lower incomes, greater income inequality and poverty, declining Main Streets and fewer stores,” read a 2018 article from the organization Food Print.
A consolidated industry also creates more fragile food systems.
Most of our eggs are sourced from just five producers (yes, you read that right), so when a crisis like the avian flu outbreak happens and disrupts the egg supply chain, shoppers across the country feel it. For those main egg producers, it can be really appealing to set egg prices high under circumstances like these, which gives people no other option than to buy expensive eggs. This is called price gouging, and it’s what Farm Action is accusing the dominant egg producers of doing.
Some agriculture experts say that stronger regional food systems are the solution to a consolidated industry.
“When you have more regionalized, diversified productions, then these various crises would be much more isolated,” Farm Action’s Sarah Carden said. “Avian flu over in Delaware shouldn’t have an effect on the eggs you can get in Oregon. It should be more of a contained issue.”
“But [right now], everything is connected and we’re all reliant on a handful of big players.”
Corporate greed has driven this crisis, but consumer behavior can steer it.
There’s one solution I can suggest, based on the conversations I’ve had while reporting on big agriculture: pay attention to where your food comes from. Know what companies are producing your food, and start asking questions when something seems off.
And, if one company is engaging in poor business practices, consider buying from someone else – if you’re able, I might suggest starting with your local, small-scale farmer. Their prices could very well be lower than any you find in the grocery store.
Rural Reading List
This collaboration between the Daily Yonder and Carolina Public Press investigates the lack of maternal care in rural western North Carolina. Data shows only half of the medical centers in the region provide prenatal care and delivery, leaving rural pregnant people long drives and delayed medical visits, which can have deadly consequences.
California’s floods are over and now people are left to clean up the mess. Farmworkers, especially, are bearing the brunt.
On the topic of consolidating industries, the biggest merger in grocery store history – Kroger swallowing Albertsons for about $24.6 billion – is set to occur this year, despite opposition from an assortment of stakeholders who say the merger will “create a new mega-grocery buyer with exceptional buyer power to squeeze its suppliers, shrinking farmers’ and workers’ share of the food dollar.”
And, to really round out our food and grocery store coverage today: a new USDA study shows rural grocery shoppers have fewer places to buy food because of consolidation in the grocery industry. For rural residents, “buying food requires driving to Walmart a few towns over or trying to make do with prepackaged and canned foods available at a Dollar General.”
One More Thing: Take the USDA Farmer Census!
The deadline to complete the 2023 Census of Agriculture is February 6. Responses can be filled out electronically via USDA’s website, and anyone who operates a plot of land – rural or urban – and makes $1,000 per year from the products sold counts in the census.
This data is useful because it can show researchers, policymakers, and the general public “how our food system and those who produce it are changing over time,” as my data colleague Sarah Melotte put it succinctly.
Knowing the data behind our food can influence federal and state funding decisions, and makes a big difference in the Farm Bill, which is being negotiated by Congress this year.