America's eggs-istential crisis
Americans love eggs. And it is a consuming love. We each eat about 280 eggs a year (more than half an egg per day).
But lately, that love is costing us dearly: The price of eggs has tripled since the pandemic began and egg shortages are hitting parts of the country. That combination has created a rare window of opportunity for substitutes.
The price of most food has risen over the last year and while that has caused a lot of shock and hardship for people across the country, the price of eggs has struck a particular chord. Eggs are often seen a cheap, reliable source of protein — a go-to when other things get expensive.
When the price of eggs goes up, people get emotional.
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"It's a hot button for consumers," says Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a food industry consultant. "It's similar to driving down the highway and seeing gas prices at $5.30."
Of course, it's not just emotional: The price of eggs has risen more than the price of almost anything else in the economy.
The reason? A lot of it has to do with the usual suspects: rising gas prices and rising prices for feed, packaging and labor.
With eggs, though, there is another culprit: A devastating avian flu has killed millions of chickens over the last year. The supply of eggs in the US has plummeted and, in some places, it's hard to get eggs at all.
"A lot of people are concerned with not being able to get eggs," says Ron Kern, a chicken farmer in Nampa, Idaho.
He hears this from his customers: they go to the supermarket and there aren't any eggs. "These huge freezers are empty," he says. That has people worried that eggs might start being hard to find.
That eggistential angst gave Kern an idea.
Kern runs Back Forty Farms in Nampa, Idaho, where it is 4 p.m. — time to feed the chickens.
Kern walks into the coop with a bucket of feed and hundreds of chickens rush in from all directions: fluttering down from their roosts, hustling in from outside.
As the chickens peck at their food, Ron Kern and his son Tony gather up the eggs — a mix of green, blue, white and brown. They are very careful with them. These eggs are valuable. Especially now.
A few years ago, these eggs would have been packaged into boxes and sold for about $3 a dozen, but these days, most of them go straight into a freeze dryer.
Freeze dried gold dust
Instead of selling fresh eggs, Kern now freeze dries most of his eggs.
The freeze dryers are about the size of a mini fridge and a row of them is humming away in a little building near Kern's chicken coop.
The eggs Kern and his son just collected will be cleaned, cracked, whipped and poured into cookie sheets that go into the freeze dryers.
The freeze dryers reduce the eggs to a bright yellow powder. "Looks kind of like gold dust," remarks Kern. "I guess it kind of is gold dust, right?"
The cost of egg-istential angst
Kern charges about $20 a dozen for his freeze dried eggs. He tells me this is a good deal: the eggs weigh almost nothing, keep for decades, don't lose any nutritional value and come in a little mylar envelope, which stores easily.
And, mostly, it gives customers peace of mind: whatever supply chain disasters, deadly flus, price spikes and shortages the eggconomy might throw at us, they will still have their beloved breakfast dish.
The proof is in the profits. The second Kern started selling his eggs online, orders poured in from all across the country.
"The demand went nuts," he recalls. "Every single package that we put on our online store was sold within 30 seconds. They just ... fly off the shelves," he laughs. "I'm not even a pun person, but there you go."
(Incidentally, nobody, not even the government, seems able to resist egg puns — they are ineggscapable.)
Economics vs eggonomics
Basic economics tells us that when the price of something rises, people will buy less of it: Demand will go down.
But eggonomics is a different story says economist Bill Lapp. Even when the price of eggs go up, people buy them. This is what is called 'inelastic demand' in economics, meaning that it's something people will buy no matter what.
Inelastic demand is usually reserved for necessities, like gasoline, electricity etc. But eggs are — an eggception.
"The demand for eggs is pretty inelastic," says Lapp. "It's a cheap source of protein, it's convenient and consumers are very very fond of cracking that shell open and cooking their egg. The demand has been slow to change."
Which came first? The mung bean or the egg
Demand might be slow to change, but supply is another story. The eggceptional circumstances around eggs over the last few years has created a major business opportunity for food companies.
All kinds of egg alternatives have been cropping up: Not only freeze dried eggs, but also plant based egg products. Those are usually soy or bean based liquids that resemble scrambled eggs when you cook them up.
For the first time last year, egg alternatives were cheaper than real eggs. And, not surprisingly, sales of egg substitutes rose by nearly 20%, according to Chicago based market research firm, IRI.
Just Eggs, which makes a mung-bean based scrambled egg product, has reportedly seen sales rise by about 17% over the last year.
Right now, if you can make something that looks like an egg, tastes like an egg, and costs less than an egg, you can make a lot of money.
An eggceptionally unscientific taste Test
But do the substitute egg products actually taste like eggs? Do they have a shot at getting between Americans and their beloved eggs? I got some of my NPR colleagues together to try some of the eggternatives and see if they've managed to crack the code.
On our panel of eggsperts: Jamila Huxtable, associate producer for Weekend All Things Considered (she "likes a good egg"); Alina Selyukh, Business Desk correspondent ("If there was one thing I could eat for the rest of my life and nothing else, it would be eggs"); and Adam Raney, supervising editor, Weekend All Things Considered ("I love eggs in all their forms.").
I scrambled up regular, fresh eggs, dehydrated (rehydrated) eggs and some plant based eggs — using just a little milk, butter and salt. I presented the dishes–unlabeled to our egg lovers to see if they could tell the difference.
TL;DR: I don't think eggs are going to lose their super status anytime soon.
That's all, yolks
The fresh eggs went over well as did the dehydrated eggs, for the most part. Huxtable remarked that they were "very spongy", but Selyukh actually preferred them to the fresh eggs.
The plant based eggs were another story.
Selyukh remarked they tasted strange. "They taste like potatoes," she said. "It's messing with my head." Raney didn't mind them as much, saying the plant based egg was "super interesting ... but it doesn't taste like an egg."
Huxtable had stronger feelings. "I'm not loving these. At all," she said. "They're a little soggy. I don't know about these."
But never fear, egg lovers! Science is moving quickly: The first plant based fried egg has just been developed by a start up in Israel and investors are pouring billions of dollars into food start ups that are working to tackle the elusive egg.
One thing is for sure: If egg prices stay high and supply stays spotty, customers could start getting serious about looking for the eggsit.
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