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Egg prices rising as U.S. confronts worst bird flu outbreak on record

The U.S. is in the grip of the worst bird flu epidemic in the nation's recorded history. As farmers grapple with how to safely destroy infected birds, consumers are starting to see egg prices rise. Associated Press reporter David Pitt joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Des Moines, Iowa.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    The U.S. is in the grip of the worst bird flu epidemic in the nation's history. The outbreak is creating a crisis for farmers: How to safely destroy infected birds and how to keep egg prices from sky rocketing in the process.

    Associated Press reporter David Pitt has been covering the story and joins me now via Skype from Des Moines, Iowa.

    David, just a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about how bad this was, but it hasn't gotten any better. We haven't figured out exactly how the transmission's happening or how many birds will be affected.

  • DAVID PITT, ASSOCIATED PRESS:

    Right. It does still seem to be spreading. The hardest-hit states are Minnesota, where most – you know, a lot of the turkeys in the United States are raised.

    And Iowa, the leading egg producing state. So both states have seen increased cases in the last few days. So we are seeing it spread still.

    And as you said, the big priority, I think, for those who study this problem or to try to figure out how to keep it from spreading and how it is spreading, and then stop it if possible.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what are the market effects now? I mean, this has just gone on long enough where we can – are we seeing prices increase?

  • DAVID PITT:

    We are. The last story that I did a few days ago reflected carton-egg prices going up about 17 percent or so in the Midwest.

    The biggest impact so far has been eggs used for ingredients and things like mayonnaise and cake mixes and those kinds of things. The broken-shell egg market.

    And that's because a lot of the chickens that are laying the eggs in Iowa that are dying from this disease are the type of chickens that lay eggs for that market.

    So that market is seeing about a 60-some percent increase, a little over 60 percent. Which may result in the price of some food items going up.

    But obviously eggs are a small portion of what goes into a cake mix or what goes into mayonnaise, so you won't see a direct proportional increase. But there will be an increase.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what about other sort of deli meats or turkey or hens?

  • DAVID PITT:

    Right. The turkey market – I think the young tom breast meat, which is used for deli meat, was up something like 10 percent. And the turkeys used for roasting at home are up slightly less than that, around three or four percent, the last time I looked.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. And have farmers figured out how to most safely dispose of this so that the virus isn't spreading elsewhere, even in the disposal process?

  • DAVID PITT:

    Yeah, I think – I think they have criteria they really need – they have to follow, the federal government really comes in and establishes how the disposal takes place. I mean, farmers work with them.

    And the state agriculture departments typically step in as well and work with the federal government. And it's usually – they're composting the birds either in the barns, composting them on the farm.

    In some cases, they're burying them in large trenches. And they've now in Iowa at least moved in some equipment to burn the – the left birds that need to be disposed of in incinerators.

    There's some effort to try to find landfills that might accept some of them as well.

    So those are the methods they're using. Obviously, biosecurity is something they're stressing a lot so people don't track into different barns, and they're trying to stop it that way.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Give us some perspective. When we say the largest of avian flu outbreak in the country's history, and we're talking about millions of birds.

    Obviously, there's hundreds of millions of birds that exist in the United States that are producing eggs and so forth. But how bad is this?

  • DAVID PITT:

    Well, we have so far seen in Minnesota alone 88 million turkeys – or 5 million turkeys, I mean. 5.8 million turkeys. And that — in Iowa, we have about 26 million birds, 23 million of those are the type that lay eggs. The entire country has about 300 million chickens laying eggs.

    So, you can see it's still somewhat of a small percentage of the total, but it is getting to the point where we are seeing an impact on the market and availability of the product.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. David Pitt of The Associated Press, thanks so much.

  • DAVID PITT:

    Thank you.

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