Take note, omelet lovers. Last month, wholesale egg prices dropped to 55 cents a dozen—a ten-year low. Although prices have gone up slightly since then, egg supply is still far outweighing demand. The reason for the lowest egg prices in a decade? Basically restaurants found ways to operate with fewer eggs last summer, back when the bird flu outbreak hit the Midwest, causing tens of millions of hens to be killed, egg production to tank, and egg prices to skyrocket. Because of this, there probably isn't as much real egg in your breakfast as you think. Wholesale egg prices hit $2.88 per dozen in August 2015, according to Reuters, and the cost of liquid eggs, which are used in commercial food production, shot up 240 percent in just a month, according to NPR.
As might be expected, a lot of restaurants and bakeries kind of freaked out.
“If you’re in this industry, especially the breakfast and lunch space, that’s all you really talk about,” Robert Maynard, CEO and co-founder of the Famous Toastery chain, told the Charlotte Observer last July. “It’s a problem.”
Some companies, unable to get their usual amounts of liquid eggs from suppliers, took to buying whole eggs at grocery stores and cracking them by hand to make up the difference. Others slowed production of certain egg-heavy products or stopped making them altogether. Many, reluctant to raise prices on their customers, saw profits suffer.
But plenty of restaurants, kitchens, and commercial bakeries figured out a way around the problem. They used fewer eggs in their recipes, and started ordering extenders like soy, flour, and gums to make the ones they did use go further. General Mills, for one, turned to plant-based substitutes, like Just Mix, which is 48 percent cheaper than regular eggs, according to its manufacturer Hampton Creek.
The hen population in the United States has since bounced back, and production is back up to speed. But bakeries and other food manufacturers are apparently happy with the adjustments they made during the crisis, according to the Associated Press.
Brian Strouts, vice president of baking and food technical services at American Institute of Baking International, says that’s simply the result of the sort of economic calculation that manufacturers are constantly making.
“They probably ran cost analysis and looked at quality and shelf life and all those kind of things. If they determined they were still meeting their customer needs and it’s as competitive from a pricing standpoint, bakers aren’t necessarily going to change back because the supply side changed,” Strouts said.
Have consumers noticed the difference? It’s possible, according to Strouts, but hard to measure. Use enough egg replacers, he said, and the look and taste of the food will start to change. But in small amounts, we may go on naively eating, unaware that the world of breakfast has shifted slightly on its axis.