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Scrambling for eggs

The worst outbreak of bird flu in U.S. history may pose little threat to your health, but your wallet may feel some pain.

More than 35 million egg-laying hens have been killed since the outbreak began in December 2014, the American Egg Board reported in June. Even though most were from commercial farms in Midwestern states, their loss has meant higher egg prices and shortages nationwide, including in the Rogue Valley.

Steve Olsrud of Sherm's Markets said prices at his grocery stores have gone up, and he doesn't see that changing overnight — or even over the course of a few months. 

"We have no idea what it’s going to look like, but the eggs are going to continue to be high through the end of the year," Olsrud said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that the average price of a dozen eggs, which in 2014 was $1.42, will increase anywhere from 32 to 44 cents this year because of the reduction in egg production. On Monday, a dozen large eggs at Fred Meyer cost $2.29; at Walmart, they cost $1.97.

Some grocery stores, including the H-E-B chain based in Texas, have placed limits on the number of eggs consumers can buy at one time. Olsrud says he doesn't imagine his stores, which include Food 4 Less and Sherm's Thunderbird in Medford, will have to resort to such measures, but he "would never say never."

Providence Medford Medical Center has been hit hard by the lower supply of egg products for its patients and staff. Karen Bartalini, director of general services at Providence, said it's a day-to-day question whether the 60 pounds of pasteurized liquid egg product the hospital needs will be available tomorrow. If not, the hospital cafeteria staff has to crack 500 eggs by hand.

Bartalini said the hospital has adjusted by altering its menu and offering egg-free options. 

"It makes (cooking) a little bit more creative," Bartalini said. "We basically have to plan for not having them. And, in reality, some of our food products are going to go up in price or become unavailable temporarily."

Grace Grueso, manager of the Medford Black Bear Diner, said her restaurant has been squeezed by the increasing cost of eggs, but the change hasn't been enough to raise menu prices. The diner relies primarily on liquid eggs but also uses whole eggs.

The bird flu hasn't had much effect on birds in Oregon, though the first case of the current outbreak was discovered on a Douglas County farm. Only about 200 chickens have been lost to the virus, said Madeline Benoit, the avian health coordinator for the state. Benoit said farmers should continue to take precautions to keep infection out of their flocks, such as keeping people with birds of their own out of coops to avoid cross-contamination, and quarantining new birds from the rest of the flock for 30 days. 

Amy Wood, spokeswoman for Willamette Egg Farms, said its Eagle Point farm hasn't been affected by the outbreak. She expected that demand for Willamette eggs might increase as shortages worsen, but it would take months to ramp up production.

"The only way to increase egg production is to quickly increase hen production," Wood said. "That’s not something that happens that quickly."

Reach reporting intern Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@mailtribune.com.

Bird flu in the Midwest is having an impact on egg prices in the Rogue Valley. Mail Tribune Illustration / Jamie Lusch