America has an egg crisis. The avian flu (H5N2) outbreak has killed or fatally infected more than 10 percent of domestic egg-laying hens—35 million in all. That has sent the price of a carton of eggs skyrocketing 120% in the past month, according to commodity market research firm Urner Barry.
The epidemic has opened the door to the first European egg imports in more than a decade, courtesy of the Netherlands and Germany. The first shipment of between 7 and 8.5 million eggs is already en route from Germany and will arrive in the U.S. next week. It’s part of an initial contract between the U.S. and Germany for up to 28 million German eggs, and a contract for another 28 million is “in the works,” Rick Brown, senior vice president of Urner Barry, told TIME.
However, you probably won’t taste the difference in the German and Dutch eggs, because so far the U.S. is only importing eggs that will be used in products—egg whites or yolks in liquid or powdered form—not sold as fresh eggs.
“The fresh eggs for the supermarkets need to be real fresh,” Hubert Andela, the chairman of the Dutch Association of Egg Packers (ANEVEI), told TIME. “Transporting them by ship from the Netherlands to the [U.S.] takes too long and flying them is very expensive.” Eggs sold in cartons at the supermarket need to be kept frozen or in a dry, cold environment, making the transportation process complicated and costly.
This means that the imports, which Andela said this week were “about to get started” from the Netherlands, are limited to egg products. That will likely result in a lot of egg white powder crossing the Atlantic, Andela said, noting that the protein is the most desired component of eggs for American consumers (who might actually be getting too much), and that domestic yolk remains cheap in the U.S. Contrary to popular belief, egg whites have more protein than egg yolks; the whites of one large egg contain 3.6 grams, while the yolk contains only 2.4 grams.
Most of the egg flavor comes from the yolk, according to Andela, so American consumers will almost certainly not notice a change in taste. Flavor is also “influenced by the feed for the laying hens and this can differ from one farm to another,” so different tastes can be found among domestic producers as it is.
This is the first time in more than three decades that American egg producers have been hit with such a large avian flu outbreak. Between 1983 and 1984, an outbreak in Pennsylvania killed 17 million hens.
To keep eggs flowing onto Americans’ plates during the current bird flu epidemic, the U.S. has approved egg imports from seven countries—Chile, Argentina, France, Spain and Portugal, in addition to the Netherlands and Germany—after the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has found that their safety standards were equivalent to those in the U.S.
While the European egg shipments will be a welcome addition to the American market, they will likely not be enough to make up for all the hens that were lost to the bird flu.
Brown, from Urner Barry, estimated that the 35 million hens affected by the bird flu had produced 28 million eggs per day; by comparison, the U.S. will likely be importing a maximum of 28 million eggs per month from Germany. The Dutch will also help, sending what Andela predicted would be the whites of several hundred million eggs per year. But even that will not be sufficient.
“We’ve lost a lot more than we could possibly import,” Brown said.
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