Egg shelves go bare as bird flu woes hit grocers in Sonoma County, across California

The bird flu has been affecting turkeys and egg-laying hens since February of last year. The supply issues have hit large national producers, distributors and grocery chains hardest.|

Sonoma County residents are scrambling to find eggs, noting empty shelves and low inventory at grocery store chains across the region.

Supply issues at the nation’s giant egg producers and distributors are largely to blame, with a prolonged bout of avian flu the main culprit.

Local consumers have taken to Reddit threads and Nextdoor to share their egg shopping woes. Many reported local Costco, Safeway, Trader Joe’s and FoodMaxx stores are out of eggs.

The shortage is largely attributed to the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or more popularly known as the bird flu, which has infected millions of turkeys and egg-laying hens.

According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, highly pathogenic avian influenza is an extremely infectious virus strain that is often fatal to chickens and can spread rapidly between flocks.

It’s been an ongoing concern for poultry farmers since the outbreak started in February of last year.

The last major outbreak of the bird flu in the U.S. was in 2015, according to reporting from CNN Business, but it was quickly contained by June of that year.

Data from the United States Department of Agriculture provided by the American Egg Board, an egg marketing group of farmers, showed 43 million egg-laying hens are gone because of the bird flu, CNN reported.

Jordan Mahrt, whose family owns Petaluma Egg Farm and Skippy’s Egg Store, said the egg shortage is largely driven by the bird flu and it’s been affecting production across the globe.

What’s happened in the past is the bird flu has gone away around December.

“But it’s still very prevalent and that’s never happened before,” Mahrt said. “So no one really knows when it might end.”

Sue Ostrom, assistant agricultural commissioner for Sonoma County, said no commercial flocks in the county have been impacted by the bird flu.

To protect its laying flocks, Petaluma Egg Farm has locked down facilities, only allowing workers to interact with the chickens after changing shoes and clothes to prevent outside contaminants reaching the chickens.

“We’re very scared,” Mahrt said. “The burden is easily carried and we don’t really know where it is, when it is so we’re doing everything we can.”

He said larger grocery chains including Safeway and Raley’s have been hit hardest because they rely on national supply chains to distribute to their stores, whereas independent grocery stores get their eggs from local distributors.

“They deal with huge supplier contracts,” he said. “Independent grocery stores definitely have a better supply of eggs than the big chain stores such as Safeway and especially Costco.”

Representatives of Safeway have not responded to inquiries about the egg shortage. Attempts to reach representatives of Raley’s have been unsuccessful.

Nate Rose, senior director at the California Grocers Association, said the grocery industry is taking measures to mitigate impacts for consumers on pricing and availability of eggs with the bird flu cutting into supply.

He said in California, there have been 26 detected cases of bird flu in domestic flocks, such as egg-laying chickens, hens and turkeys, in over 13 counties and 207 cases in wild birds in 42 counties, including Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino.

“It’s a statewide situation and it’s still being detected, so we’re not out of the woods on this issue,” he said.

The range of scale and demand can make some stores more vulnerable to supply issues in such cases than others, Rose said.

Larger grocery stores have to patch together supply from a greater number of vendors to meet their higher sales volume.

“It’s easier for an independent grocer with fewer vendors,” Rose said. “They’ve had an easier time navigating it so far.”

Local grocers say their ties with local producers and distributors have allowed them to keep their egg shelves stocked.

Casey Rodacker, the owner of Pacific Market in Sebastopol, said the market isn’t experiencing an egg shortage.

Dustin Canter is the natural grocery buyer for Oliver’s Market and said the stores’ egg supply is 60% to 80% full and have been working with local distributor partners to maintain that supply for customers.

“I think we’re OK,” Canter said. “Right now it’s the tightest and shortest (supply) and what we’ve been seeing is a bunch of price increases to prevent this (shortage).”

Despite the tight supply, Canter doesn’t anticipate putting a limit on how many egg cartons customers can purchase and hopes that limiting customers doesn’t come up.

Bill Mattos, the president of the California Poultry Federation, said the bird flu has wiped out around 60 million chickens and turkeys, creating a shortage on the market.

“The main reason it’s affecting prices in California and everywhere else is because there are a lot less chickens,” he said. “What happens when you have to get rid of a layer chicken, it can take a year or two for them to get to laying eggs again.”

Mattos said California poultry farmers have implemented “high quality biosecurity standards” to protect egg layers from catching the bird flu, such as not letting anyone on or off the ranch and requiring workers to wear a hazmat-style suit when near the chickens.

Mattos said these measures have been successful at keeping the flu away from chickens, but he doesn’t expect an ease in the shortage soon.

“I don’t think it’s going to get better before the spring, probably because when you get to Easter, demand goes up,” he said. “I don’t see the shortage being filled until well into the year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sara Edwards at 707-521-5487 or sara.edwards@pressdemocrat. com. On Twitter @sedwards380.

Sara Edwards

Business reporter

Small businesses are the bread and butter of Sonoma County. I cover a diverse group: Chambers of commerce and business groups, clothing shops, jewelry boutiques, hobby stores and more. Economic uncertainty is a high concern among Sonoma County consumers, and it’s my job to make sure shoppers know what’s happening in the local economy and how those trends and issues impact them.

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