In January of 2022, walking out of the grocery store with a dozen large Grade A eggs would have put you out $1.93. By December, that number shot up to $4.25.
While inflation and rising interest rates have brought countless new economic stressors into our lives. And – thanks to the ending of pandemic-era SNAP benefits on March 1, food stamp recipients can expect at least $95 less per month in assistance. Still, it’s particularly stunning to experience what has always been a staple food for working-class people, and one of the most affordable sources of protein in a sea of cheap processed food, starting to cost an arm and a leg. According to the USDA, Americans consume an average of 278 eggs per person every year; it’s breakfast on most days. Among all the common grocery items that have seen major price increases in 2022 – like butter, oats, and breakfast cereal – the price of eggs has seen the most dramatic leap.
The ensuing chaos around “eggflation” has tended toward the absurd. The New York Times reports rising demand for at-home egg-laying chickens as a presumably cheaper alternative to buying eggs at the store. Contraband eggs are piling up at the U.S-Mexico border, where border agents report confiscating thousands of eggs per week that they then transport to a waste facility to be “steamed, sterilized, and thrown away.” Right wing commentators like Tucker Carlson, Candance Owens, and thousands of Facebook users are pushing conspiracy theories that the Biden administration is “hiding something” about chicken feed that’s causing backyard hens to underperform. Debates about “Are Eggs Really Good For You After All?” are getting new algorithm boosts, and opinion pieces abound on how American people can “change the way we relate to eggs.”
It even made for an awkward moment at the 2023 Grammys when host Trevor Noah asked Taylor Swift if she could direct her notorious fanbase of “swifties” to lower the price of eggs when they’re finished suing Ticketmaster. The joke fell on a blank face of the near-billionaire artist, but the desire for a solution to the climbing prices was all too real for the millions watching at home.
The Era of Shortages
Like with the crisis of baby formula and medications, “eggflation” exposes preventable supply-side crises depleting inventories and contributing to scarcity and skyrocketing prices, which in turn are made worse by broader inflationary trends. However, the “eggflation” phenomenon, like each of the recent shortages, also has its own unique features. With such a large portion of the world’s supply of oats, corn, and barley used for animal feed coming from Ukraine and Russia, the impact of war on exports has had an impact on poultry farming in the U.S. and worldwide. Most notably, an outbreak of avian influenza (bird flu) wiped out over 58 million U.S. commercial birds in 2022 alone, including 44 million egg-laying hens.
Bird flu was detected in the U.S. in January 2022 for the first time since 2016, and the ensuing outbreak has already taken the title of the deadliest in U.S. history. The latest strain of the virus is not only more lethal than past strains, but it also is infecting a range of migratory birds like owls, hawks, and eagles, allowing for wide geographic spread and ample room for variants. The mutant strain H5N1 recently shut down a mink facility in Spain, in an alarming sign of the possibility for mammals to contract the disease as well.
When a facility has a bird flu outbreak, the standard response is “depopulation,” or mass extermination of all animals in a facility to stop the contagion in its tracks. There are a number of problems with this. One is that the urgent need for profit has been driving producers to restore flock numbers as rapidly as possible, even when outbreaks are still ongoing, counteracting containment and bringing the situation back to square one.
Another problem is the preexisting conditions of egg production: thousands of hens are warehoused in tightly-packed cages. This is a perfect scenario for bird flu to be transmitted through droppings and feathers. Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute pointed out in a press release early last year that, “Factory farms are ideal incubators for disease – cramped, filthy warehouses for massive flocks or herds of animals bred to possess little genetic diversity. Yet producers remain unwilling to effectively plan for emergencies.”
At the top of the chain of culpability is a season regular in the era of shortages: monopolies. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, advocacy group Farm Action made a convincing case that the surge in egg prices is due, in addition to other named factors, is also due to corporate price gouging. The tried-and-true capitalist strategy of vertical integration (the disastrous practice where big companies gobble up smaller companies to cut competition and dominate markets) has landed Cal-Maine foods with a comfortable 20% of the retail egg market. Cal-Maine saw a ten-fold increase in profits as avian flu decimated egg production, $525 million in 2022 from $50 million a year prior.
Public Ownership of Big Agriculture
At the time of writing, shoppers may be feeling some relief as egg prices have nudged down in January. But looking ahead, 47 states still have active avian flu outbreaks as of February, with infected migratory birds in all 50. With no fundamental change in how these necessities are produced, there are bound to be more shake-ups on the horizon.
Of all the industries in most urgent need of being taken into democratic public ownership, Big Agriculture ranks among the highest. Production of food, our most basic of necessities, is in dire need of an overhaul as corporations create dire crises and have consumers foot the bill with no interruption to profits, only for disaster to strike again later on.
Taking the biggest agricultural chains into democratic public ownership would usher in an overhaul of the way the industry is organized. The existing conditions could be a thing of the past, with smaller, sustainable, free-range facilities replacing the current model of overcrowded factory farms. While this might decrease yield slightly, it would ensure a higher quality product with far less waste. Over 200 million eggs are thrown away every year before they even hit grocery shelves! This is not to mention the number of eggs rejected by stores or thrown away by consumers – eggs are among the most wasted food products in the U.S. A transition to smaller-scale farming would mitigate the risk of disease outbreaks and allow for far better living conditions for the animals, lessen the astounding impact of factory farming on the environment, and improve working conditions for farm workers.
Farm workers are some of the most criminally hyper-exploited workers across all industries with a range of occupational hazards. Instead of putting the burden on workers themselves at these massive plants – as current advisories are doing – the ultra-rich bosses need to provide PPE, clean facilities, drinking water, and healthcare to workers. This needs to be won through a mass campaign to organize farm workers, who are overwhelmingly made up of immigrant workers without protections, and less than 1% of farm workers are in a union.
Public ownership would also allow workers and consumers to open up the books to see what’s really behind the sky-high prices.
We need massive investment in making food production safer and more sustainable. This investment can’t be in the hands of the CEOs of monopolies like Cal-Maine who are doling out millions in profits to their shareholders. It needs to happen under the direction of farmers, farm workers, and consumers themselves in the best interest of public health and environmental justice.
Throughout history, including very recent history, prices for food and other necessities have been the spark for powerful mass movements. As shortages, shocks, and cost-of-living crises further expose capitalism’s inability to put food on the table, sooner or later working people will need to stand up and fight to stop the chaos that corporate greed imposes on our everyday lives, and take back the power to build a truly reliable system.