Kim and Mark Boyd opened Auntie Kim’s Pound Cakes in Cumming seven months ago, proud to serve affordable, delicious cakes made from real ingredients to the community.
Soon after opening, however, they noticed grocery prices starting to rise. The local couple saw the price of butter go up slightly first, then sour cream and other dairy products.
“But the eggs are the most dramatic,” Kim said.
The national price of eggs has more than doubled in the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from $1.92 to $4.25 for a dozen large grade-A eggs. That significant rise in cost has not gone unnoticed as local consumers and businesses like Auntie Kim’s Pound Cakes struggle to afford what has always been a household staple.
“With the eggs, it’s like we just can’t do it,” Mark said. “We came to the realization that we have to go up on our prices. And it really is so we can stay in business because if we don’t, we’ll be so underneath the water that we’ll have to close our doors and won’t be able to serve our customers.”
The couple racked their brains for a month trying to find a way to stay open without raising prices on their customers, but they couldn’t continue taking on the cost of the rising eggs and dairy products.
So far, Mark said customers have been understanding and supportive, but he still worries about how it might affect business.
Ben Cambell, associate professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Georgia, said the main reason for soaring egg prices is the bird flu outbreak. It first emerged in commercial flocks in Indiana last February and has since grown to become one of the deadliest outbreaks in U.S. history.
“The big driver is avian influenza, which has taken millions of birds out of the system,” Campbell said, adding that it would be difficult to quantify just how big an impact the bird flu is having relative to other factors like increased input costs, supply chain disruptions and higher egg demand.
The outbreak was caused by infected birds migrating from Europe that leave droppings as they fly over U.S. farms, said Louise Dufour-Zavala, executive director of the Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network, a Gainesville-based company that works with government agencies and other laboratories in the prevention, management and control of poultry disease outbreaks statewide.
“The source of the virus is wild birds,” Dufour-Zavala said. “And this year, instead of just a wild waterfowl being affected by this, it's about 140 species of birds. It’s tremendous.”
Nearly 58 million birds in hundreds of backyard and commercial flocks across 47 states have been affected by the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This includes 44 million of 325 million egg-laying hens in the U.S., according to the United Egg Producers.
But in Georgia, commercial flocks haven’t been touched by the bird flu, said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, a trade group that represents the poultry industry. The issue lies in the number of laying hens impacted at farms in other parts of the nation.
Table eggs account for only 5% of Georgia’s poultry production, compared to 90% for broiler chickens sold as meat, according to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
This means most of the eggs that consumers buy in the state are not local.
“Current egg prices reflect many factors, most of which are outside the control of an egg farmer,” the American Egg Board said in a statement. “Eggs are bought and sold on the commodity market, where farmers don’t set the price of eggs — the market does.”
But many have been left wondering if the rise in egg prices accurately reflects the loss in production seen in the industry.
Farm Action, a farmer-led nonprofit that fights against monopolization in the agriculture industry, urged the Federal Trade Commission in a Jan. 19 letter to investigate the egg industry for price gouging and monopolistic behavior.
The nonprofit wrote that “the real culprit” behind the rise in egg prices “appears to be a collusive scheme among industry leaders to turn inflationary conditions and an avian flu outbreak into an opportunity to extract egregious profits.”
The USDA noted in a 2022 report that the increase in egg prices was “much larger than the decreases in production,” which “reflects the inelastic nature of the demand for eggs,” meaning people will continue to buy eggs even when prices rise. That gives egg companies more power to raise prices without triggering a drop in demand.
“When you have only a handful of companies controlling each section along the food supply chain … they're like, ‘Well, let's see how far we can go,’” said Sarah Carden, senior policy advocate for Farm Action. “Egg demand is pretty inelastic, and we've seen that. Look how far they’ve been able to push it.”
And skyrocketing prices have affected more than just the pockets of consumers and small businesses. Meals By Grace, a client-choice food pantry serving Forsyth and Dawson counties, is now struggling to keep up with a rising need for help in the community as products run low.
“We often do not have staples like eggs or milk, which so many families depend on,” said Chris Harvey, volunteer manager at Meals By Grace.
Steven Daniels, President and Chief of Staff at the nonprofit, said he hasn’t been able to find eggs at a food bank for at least 60 days during a time when farms should be ramping up on production.
Any time farms produce an excess of eggs, those go to a food bank where pantries can purchase them for a discounted price, but for now, he said there is no extra product to be had. Without that discount, the pantry can’t afford to provide eggs weekly for clients.
At the same time, inflation has caused the pantry’s client list to grow with many struggling to keep up with a rising cost of living. Harvey said more and more people are coming to the pantry to try to make up food costs they can no longer afford.
But now, the pantry is struggling to keep up and is relying heavily on community donations to provide for their clients.
“This is just a challenging time, and we are grateful to everyone who is able to help,” Harvey said.
Those interested can visit www.mealsbygrace.org to learn more about how to donate.
The American Egg Board stated there are signs that egg prices may start to come down soon, though, following a peak in demand during the holiday season. As wholesale prices come down, the board believes “lower retail prices will follow.”
But experts say there is still a lot of uncertainty and predict the virus will stick around for a while, especially if the massive outbreak that is still making an impact in Europe after its start in 2021 provides any clues.
Kim and Mark Boyd are holding out hope, though, that the prices will drop soon so they can bring their own prices back down and keep their business afloat.
“We just hope this all gets back to normal,” Mark said.
Times reporter Ben Anderson contributed to this story. FCN is a sister publication of the Times.