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Egg Prices Leave Consumers Clucking

A look at how eggs are mass produced, from the henhouse to quality control. High egg prices and consumer demand are good news for area farmers, but tough on consumers. Video by Michael Laris/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

In the race between her family's income and four hungry sons, Norma Jean Young says the boys are beginning to win.

The cost of the five loaves of bread and four gallons of milk that her three teenagers and 11-year-old churn through in a week has increased 11 to 17 percent since early last year. The price of eggs is up even more, jumping 30 percent to their highest point since 1984, according to federal tracking data.

"It's ridiculous, and my kids eat them by the gallon," said Young, an occupational health nurse from Annandale. "They'll routinely make three-egg omelets when they get home, for a snack. . . . It's a quagmire that I never step out of."

Lee Rathbun, meanwhile, has cut trips to the meat aisle by half to save money. So when he saw a special on eggs during a recent visit to the Safeway in downtown Fairfax, he grabbed three dozen. They were on sale, "a two-for-one deal," he said. "That means there's going to be potato salad this week," he said.

And at the national average of $2.17 a dozen, the 15,200 eggs set to be dyed and rolled on the White House's South Lawn Monday would cost $697 more than they did last year. Luckily for Uncle Sam, he gets them gratis from the American Egg Board and the Virginia Egg Council.

On Easter weekend, even the humble egg can't escape the nation's economic angst. A surge in egg exports, the weak dollar, pricey grain, oil at more than $100 a barrel and cuts in the national chicken flock have contributed to the fortunes of the region's farmers and to supermarket sticker shock.

"Nobody ever thinks about what all goes into that product they purchase and how tied into the world you are," said Bill Hibberd, who has been raising chickens for 30 years in New Windsor, Md. "It just amazes you. Where do these eggs go when they leave us?"

But first, the chickens.

The 103,000 white hens pecking at feed troughs in the mechanized barn of one of Hibberd's fellow producers in nearby Westminster, in Carroll County, started their harried lives 15 months after a shipment of embryos arrived in Canada from a breeding facility outside Hamburg, Germany. Two generations later, the female chicks from the resulting flock were rumbling toward Maryland's Sunnyside Farms.

The females, beaks clipped so they don't tear one another apart, are fattened up and start work at 18 weeks. (Male chicks are sent to a high-speed grinder or fed to zoo animals; the breed isn't considered meaty enough to raise for drumsticks.)

In henhouse 2 at Sunnyside, the chickens are placed in 13,920 cages stacked four high, above a large manure pit cleared twice a year. Chains drag a crushed-corn mixture to the birds, and a conveyor system with white rubber fingers eases the eggs -- 22 dozen per hen per year -- out to be processed for consumers at Chevy Chase Supermarket, Sam's Club in Woodbridge and Giant Food in Mount Pleasant.

"You take care of the hens, get the eggs out and try to feed the world," farm manager Jeff Shanks said.

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