When will San Diego’s egg shortage be over?

First, it was toilet paper. Now, San Diegans are dealing with a shortage of eggs and rising prices because of avian flu and shifting laws around egg production.

Nationally, egg prices are up 60 percent in a year, data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows. Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation said it could be at least six months before prices drop.

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A spokesperson for Ralphs supermarkets said egg supply has been steady in recent weeks but they’ve been limiting purchases to two dozen per customer across its stores. Keeping eggs in stock at San Diego’s Jimbo’s Naturally stores has been hard in the past couple of weeks, said Jason Murrell, Jimbo’s director of grocery.

Murrell, who heads the buying efforts for Jimbo’s four stores, said at one point they posted signs letting customers know they were completely out of eggs before they were able to work with suppliers to restock amid the supply deficit.

“The customer demand is equal to what it has been in the past,” he said. “It’s really that the supply is so diminished … Over the past few weeks, there have been days where there are literally no eggs coming in despite the fact that we’re ordering consistent with what the typical demand is.”

The main factor driving the egg supply down and prices up is an outbreak of avian flu, which has hit flocks across the country since last February. If any birds in a flock test positive for the illness, it’s required that all of the birds in that flock are killed to prevent the disease from spreading.

California egg producers have managed to secure their flocks and have largely not been affected by avian flu, Mattos said in an email. He noted, however, that California has lost 200,000 turkeys and some breeder broilers. The California Department of Food and Agriculture recorded its first case of avian flu in a commercial flock on Aug. 22, 2022.

In the Midwest and East Coast, Mattos said the industry has lost about 50 million egg layers from bird flu during the past few months.

“Poultry growers in the Midwest and East are repopulating their flocks,” Mattos wrote. “It will take six months to a year to see the prices come down.”

But another factor that has influenced California’s egg supply is a law that went into effect last year requiring the state’s commercial hens to be cage-free. After the initiative passed, Mattos said some producers left the state, which led to a drop in California’s supply.

He added that California producers can only supply up to 60 percent of the state’s eggs — the rest come from other parts of the country.

A few other states have passed similar laws banning conventional egg production, which went into effect in Colorado and Washington on Jan. 1.

Mattos said the supply constraints coupled with rising energy costs and inflation jacking up the prices of gas and chicken feed has created a “perfect storm” for egg prices to spike.

The prices for a carton of eggs vary at San Diego County grocery stores. A dozen grade A, large brown eggs at Whole Foods costs $6.99, Trader Joe’s has them for $4.99, it’s $6.49 at Vons and $7.29 at Target.

For small businesses buying thousands of eggs each week, their hands are tied in the meantime.

Kevin Diaz, the co-owner of Arely’s French Bakery in Clairemont, has a group chat with his restaurant friends to find and share eggs. Diaz, who typically orders 4,000 to 5,000 eggs per week, insists on only using freshly cracked eggs for his café dishes and baked goods.

Last spring, he saw prices increase a few dollars every couple of weeks, but he noticed a big jump in the fall. A box containing 15 dozen eggs used to be $35 each, but now, that same box costs $110 to $125.

“Our egg budget just went over,” Diaz said. “And right now, it’s still over but we … try to survive the most we can.”

He’s run his business for 18 years and never dealt with a shortage like this one. It’s caused him to raise his prices amid inflation ballooning the cost for other supplies like to-go containers.

Even then, Diaz can only order less than half as many boxes of eggs from his regular out-of-state suppliers. Lately, he’s gotten the rest of his eggs by running to the store early in the morning before they sell out and driving an hour round-trip to a local farm.

Murrell added that Jimbo’s has leaned more on its relationships with local farms, like Hilliker’s Ranch Fresh Eggs in Lakeside, to keep shelves stocked as some out-of-state suppliers have also limited their ordering capacity. Similarly, shoppers who are scrambling to find eggs have turned to buying directly from San Diego County farms.

At a recent Carlsbad Farmer’s Market the booth for a poultry farm in Ramona called Three Sons Farm had a sign that read “Eggs Sold Out.“ Kathleen Jaquez, the business owner and mother of the three sons, said they sold out of eggs within the first hour of the market opening, which has been happening more frequently.

White board sign says eggs sold out with a frown face.

Ramona’s Three Sons Farm sold out of eggs during the first hour of the Carlsbad Farmer’s Market on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.

(Natallie Rocha/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Ramona farm is not a commercial producer, but it has seen more customers placing delivery orders on its website. Three Sons Farm has a flock of about 500 hens that can produce about 200 dozen eggs each week.

With more people ordering online, Nick Jaquez, the farm’s manager said they’re bringing half as many eggs to the market as they would in normal times and selling out. Jaquez just started limiting online orders so they can balance deliveries and in-person sales to meet the heightened demand from San Diegans.

A dozen of Three Sons Farm eggs cost $8. The family farm hasn’t raised their prices, but it’s a possibility if inflation persists and the demand continues.

While everyone deals with egg scarcity, the oldest Jaquez brother said he hopes people will consider buying eggs closer to home.

“I’m hoping that it’s a benefit to smaller farms that are local in the area,” he said. “And even when this whole thing ends and prices drop, (consumers) continue to realize the importance of the local food system.”