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A Bird Flu Outbreak at the Largest U.S. Chicken Egg Producer Could Affect Egg Prices

By Ayana Archie and Joe Hernandez

Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the largest producer of fresh eggs in the U.S., has temporarily halted production at one of its facilities in Texas after detecting bird flu there, the company announced Tuesday.

The company says it "depopulated" about 1.6 million laying hens and 337,000 pullets, or about 3.6% of its flock, as a result of the outbreak.

Bird flu — also known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI — is a highly contagious virus typically spread by wild birds that is extremely deadly to avian populations. Human infections are rare.

Commercial farms sometimes euthanize part of their flock during bird flu outbreaks to limit the spread of the disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mississippi-based Cal-Maine Foods said it was "working to secure production from other facilities to minimize disruption to its customers."

But it's possible that the depopulation at the Texas location could lead to higher egg prices at the grocery store, says Amy Hagerman, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University.

"Any time you have an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a large poultry producer like this, it has the potential to impact the market, because you're taking a large number of egg-laying birds out of production all at once," Hagerman says.

The illnesses at Cal-Maine Foods come amid an outbreak of bird flu among livestock at multiple dairy farms across the U.S.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed Tuesday that it had detected bird flu in dairy herds in Texas, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Idaho.

Also, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced earlier this week that a person contracted bird flu through an outbreak of the disease among dairy cattle. It was only the second time in the U.S. a person was confirmed to have HPAI A, also known as H5N1.

Though the cattle appear to be experiencing only mild illnesses, bird flu is very deadly to avian populations, and poultry producers may depopulate large groups to prevent the disease from spreading.

Hagerman says the poultry industry tries to move quickly when an outbreak occurs, attempting to eradicate the virus from barns before bringing in new, healthy birds.

"But at least temporarily, you see that sharp decline in the total eggs laid and as a result you see a price increase usually at the grocery store," she says.

How much of an increase would depend on how many flocks contract bird flu at the same time and how many birds are taken out of production, Hagerman adds.

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