CALIFORNIA — A nationwide egg shortage is hitting California particularly hard, sending prices through the roof and prompting major grocery chains to limit egg purchases.

The situation has Golden State residents scrambling to find the key ingredient for their morning omelets. The average cost of a dozen eggs in California this week is a whopping $7.37 — about three times the national average of $2.37 a dozen.

Californians are also paying about three times the cost a year ago. Eggs from humanely raised chickens can cost even more. A Patch editor found a store in Redlands that was selling cage-free eggs for $9.99 a dozen and half; eggs from free-range chickens were going for $7.99 a dozen at the same store. In Seal Beach, a Patch editor found chains such as Ralphs limiting shoppers to two dozen eggs due to the supply shortage. Across Los Angeles this week, several grocery stores ran out of eggs, particularly at the lower price range.

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An 18-pack of eggs at a Southern California supermarket was $9.99 on Thursday. Photo: Renee Schiavone / Patch

A perfect storm of factors has led to the egg shortage and price spike in California.

A nationwide bird flu outbreak that required the slaughter of 44 million egg-laying hens is largely behind the price spikes, according to industry experts. That cut production of eggs by about 5 percent. Almost 58 million birds, mostly egg-laying hens and turkeys, have been destroyed last year because of the outbreak.

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“The flu is the most important factor affecting egg prices,” Maro Ibarburu, a business analyst at the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University, told The Washington Post. “This outbreak, in terms of egg-laying hens, we lost 10 million more egg-laying hens than the last outbreak in 2015.”

In California, newly enacted laws designed to ensure the humane treatment of egg-laying birds are also a factor. Last year, Proposition 12 took effect. It requires farmers to provide more space for egg-laying hens. It effectively limits the number of hens California farmers can have at a time when millions of chickens nationwide are dying from the bird flu. Additionally, cage-free hens are more likely to be exposed to the bird flu.

It’s not uncommon to see eggs selling for nearly $8 a dozen in California. Photo: Renee Schiavone / Patch

Increased costs to farmers were a bigger factor in the sharp increase in egg prices than the bird flu, Emily Metz, the president of the American Egg Board trade group, told The Associated Press.

“When you’re looking at fuel costs [that] go up, and you’re looking at feed costs [that] go up as much as 60 percent, labor costs, packaging costs — all of that … those are much bigger factors than bird flu for sure.”

Kroger, Whole Foods, Fred Meyer and some other grocers are limiting egg purchases to one or two cartons in some areas. A Walmart spokesperson told Winsight Grocery Business, a business-to-business industry publication, that it has not imposed limits on egg purchases now that demand has returned to normal levels after surging during the holidays.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service said in a recent forecast that wholesale egg prices will likely decline as the industry rebuilds egg-laying flocks. That takes time, though.

After chicken facilities are sanitized and restocked with healthy hens, it takes about four or five months for the birds to “reach peak productivity” of about 24 eggs a month, Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman with the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told The New York Times.

Still, whether egg prices will go down to the level of 99 cents a carton remains in some doubt as bird flocks around the county continue to be infected with the highly contagious bird flu.

“We need to see if more birds are affected by influenza,” Ibarburu, the Iowa State analyst, told The Washington Post. “In the event we get the outbreak under control, it will be better every month.”

California is no stranger to avian disease outbreaks, and the commercial industry has honed its biosecurity measures since amid outbreaks of bird flu and Newcastle Disease, which primarily affects backyard flocks.

“Luckily, our California egg industry has avoided any bird flu in commercial flocks,” California Poultry Federation President Bill Mattos told the Los Angeles Times. “Their biosecurity is outstanding and companies here are working very hard to keep wild birds out of facilities and farms across the state.”

At least 47 states, including California, have been affected by the highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, since February 2022.

Since the outbreak began, Iowa, the largest egg producer in the United States, has been hit the hardest. More than 15 million birds were destroyed in that state alone last year.

Still, eggs are a relatively cheap meal when compared with the price of other proteins such as chicken or beef, with a pound of chicken breasts going for $4.42 on average in November and a pound of ground beef selling for $4.85, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If the prices don’t subside, some people may think more seriously about backyard chickens.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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