Egg production line
An uneasy calm has settled over the market as birds migrate south for the winter.

The poultry industry, especially the egg sector, is seeing good recovery from the devastating spring outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza but is wary that the fall migration of birds could cause a recurrence with bad results.

Little may be done to control the flight of wild birds, but flight patterns are known and the industry has much better biosecurity controls in place now than was the case a few months ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is testing wild birds to detect the presence of A.I. as well as taking other measures to prevent an outbreak or limit the spread should one recur, including issuance of its “Fall 2015 H.P.A.I. preparedness and response plan” in September.

Egg and egg product prices have been on a rollercoaster-like ride this year because of the A.I. outbreak, which was the worst in U.S. history claiming about 48 million birds, including more than 42 million chickens, mostly layers of eggs for the processing industry. In January nest run eggs (breaking stock) hit 2½-year lows around 50c a dozen, the lowest since June 2012. By June 2015, well into the A.I. outbreak, prices had soared 4.7 times to a record $2.35 a dozen and higher. Values then tumbled 35% by the first of July as it became obvious the outbreak was under control.

Prices then surged back to the June record level in early August as shortages of eggs and egg products were being realized. Since then, prices have plunged more than 50% to around $1.12 a dozen and above, still more than double the January 2015 price and about 20% above year-ago levels.

The ride for graded eggs (those sold at retail) also has been dramatic, based on U.S.D.A. regional average prices, even though the impact of A.I. was worse for breaking stock than retail eggs since Iowa, which accounts for about 20% of the nation’s processing eggs, suffered the greatest laying hen losses. Wholesale Grade A large eggs averaged $2.42 to $2.51½ a dozen in mid-June, about 2.3 times the January low, dropped about 25% by mid-July then climbed about 45% to fresh record highs of $2.67 to $2.85½ a dozen by mid-August. Consumer resistance to prices above $3 a dozen in the grocery store again sent wholesale prices plunging 45% to around $1.50 a dozen by mid-October. Egg prices in the grocery store dropped below $2 a dozen in some areas during October.

While it’s common for excess graded eggs to be “unloaded” in breaking channels, especially for medium-size eggs, the efforts initially hit roadblocks as some of the large vertically integrated poultry operations (those with laying hens and processing facilities) were unable to accept outside shipments. But those operations adjusted as the summer and fall progressed and more graded eggs were absorbed by processors, pressuring breaking egg prices and also easing the shortage of egg products.

Like eggs, egg product supplies were in dire straits much of the summer and prices saw wide fluctuations, including record highs. Prices for dried whole, white and yolk all hit record highs from July to September. Dry yolk prices peaked at $9.30 to $9.55 a lb in early September, five times its 2015 low set in January; dry white peaked in July at $18.25 to $18.75 a lb, more than twice its April low; and dried whole egg peaked in July-August at $10.30 to $10.75 a lb, more than three times its April low.

By late October prices for dried whites had tumbled more than 40%, whole about 30% and yolk about 20%, but whole egg remained about twice the year-ago value and yolk was more than five times the year-ago price. The exception was dried whites, which were down about 25% from a year ago, when prices were declining but still seeing the effect of the egg white breakfast craze. It should be noted actual prices paid by users may vary widely from quoted values depending on specific situations.

Helpful to egg product users during the summer were active sales of egg replacers by several companies, which have led to some tension between producers of egg replacers and the egg industry, even if the replacers were critical for users when egg product supplies were unavailable or exorbitantly priced. The U.S.D.A.’s allowing of egg product imports from select countries also eased the supply stress somewhat.

It was estimated earlier in the summer that repopulating laying flocks may take more than a year, and that it would be even longer for egg and product markets to return to pre-avian influenza status. For now, it’s a matter of waiting to get through the fall bird migration.