Egg Controversy Continues …

Volatile egg prices have shaped the consumer grocery experience since the first case of avian flu — which kicked-off the current outbreak — was detected in a commercial poultry facility in February of 2022. Egg prices have fluctuated since then but have increased significantly in the past several months and hit an all-time high in January at $4.82 for a dozen of large Grade A eggs.

In late January, I wrote about one possible reason for the high egg prices: price gouging by the egg industry’s biggest players. The organization Farm Action sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging officials to investigate the industry for setting egg prices higher than what farmer advocates say they realistically should be, even amid a highly contagious avian flu outbreak. 

Cal-Maine, the largest egg producer in the United States, made $535.3 million in gross profit in 2022, compared to $50.4 million in gross profit over the same period in 2021, according to their financial statements. Farmer advocates have pointed to these numbers as evidence that the company has increased prices far higher than necessary to cover any profit loss from the flu outbreak. 

Adding more substance to the accusation, Cal-Maine was already at the center of a lawsuit filed by several grocery corporations claiming the egg company had participated in an “unlawful conspiracy” to fix the price of and reduce the supply of egg products in the United States. In 2018, Cal-Maine paid the plaintiffs a lump sum of $80.75 million to settle the lawsuit. All this to say, price gouging could very well have been afoot this time around. 

But we also can’t ignore the severity of the avian flu.

The United States is currently experiencing the most deadly avian flu outbreak ever recorded. As of March 1, the virus has been detected in approximately 58.5 million backyard and commercial chickens in 47 states. The middle of the country has been most affected: Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and Minnesota have lost more than 33 million birds, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

When one chicken in a flock is infected, the entire flock is euthanized. Which is as horrible as it sounds for a multitude of economic reasons, as well as the principle of needlessly wasted life. 

Avian flu also poses a threat to humans: an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died less than two weeks ago from avian flu, albeit from a different strain than the one killing poultry and wild birds. 

The biggest concern is for people who handle poultry and other animals that avian flu can infect, like pigs. Many workers in meat processing facilities live in rural America. Like the covid-19 pandemic, a virus transmitted in meat facilities could become a serious issue not just for farm workers but for the rural communities they live in as well.

“This is an animal health issue right now that has a theoretical risk to become a human health issue,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in a Scientific American interview.

A New York Times article published yesterday looked at the possibility of poultry vaccination as a way of mitigating the risk of avian flu transmission to other animals and humans. The article quotes James Krellenstein, an adviser to the international consulting firm Global Health Strategies. In the interview Krellenstein said that “we should be viewing this as a live-action fire drill.”

How will a “fire drill,” and all the disagreement around holding one or not, affect the egg industry, poultry farmers, and consumers’ breakfasts? (It shouldn’t surprise you that some groups involved in the issue oppose vaccine mandates … an alarmingly familiar phrase.) 

The answer is not simple, which is why I will be joined by food and agriculture journalist Chris Chafin this Thursday, March 9 at 5pm EST on Instagram Live via the Daily Yonder’s Instagram account. We’ll talk about price-gouging, avian flu, and how the whole mess is playing-out in rural communities. 

As a primer for our conversation, I encourage you to read Chris’s excellent Ambrook Research article about the culmination of factors that have led to this moment in egg history, and then tune in on Thursday to hear about recent developments. 

“See” you Thursday!

Rural Reading List

The Resurrection Swamp

Toxic industrial waste had wreaked havoc on a swamp in Louisiana that many locals viewed as a lost cause, until one woman stepped in to start cleaning it up.

How Infrastructure Funding Is Bringing High-Speed Internet to Hard-to-Reach Places

You know it’s a good week when there’s a new comic on the Daily Yonder website from graphic journalist Nhatt Nichols. This time around, Nichols illustrates reporting on a loan and grant program delivering high-speed internet to rural communities across the country.

‘Ice Castles’ and ‘Floating Barges’: Housing Crisis Hits Rural College Students

College students in all parts of the country are struggling to find affordable housing, and this piece tells why this is so bad for the students and the communities they live in.

The 90-foot Sentinel of Butte, Montana

While not technically rural, this High Country News piece about the 90-foot Virgin Mary in Butte, Montana touches on many themes rural people will know and recognize (and, let’s be real – Butte is pretty stinking rural.)

One More Thing: Lithium Mines

Construction is officially underway at the Thacker Pass lithium mine project in rural northern Nevada. Once mining begins, the site is expected to produce 66,000 tons of lithium per year over a 40-year period, making it the largest producer of lithium in the United States. 

Paiute and Shoshone tribal members and residents of nearby Winnemucca have opposed the project for several years. The recent announcement comes as a blow for both groups. 

Lithium is a weird topic because it tends to divide the environmental movement into people who are against extraction no matter what and those who see it as an unavoidable evil in the pursuit of renewable energy (lithium is used to make rechargeable batteries for products like electric vehicles). No matter what side of the debate you fall on (perhaps outside of it), what is certain is that rural communities are usually at the frontlines. 

The way these communities are involved in – or excluded from – decisions on projects like Thacker Pass has massive rural implications. 

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