Local layers are now racing to expand operations as the islands remain bird-flu free.

Avian flu has scrambled the egg industry on the U.S. mainland, boosting demand for Hawaii’s homegrown eggs to the point that local laying operations are struggling to keep up.

Eggs are typically more expensive in the islands, but they have recently been brought close to parity with mainland eggs, which rose by at least 60% in December, according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

The price change has simultaneously been a boon for the local egg industry and a sore point for consumers and certain businesses. It’s also compounding problems at local egg-laying operations that are trying to meet the increased demand while handling the high cost of imported feed and chicks.

Raising chickens in Hawaii, especially for meat, has been a declining industry that has struggled to compete with mainland poultry. But now the state’s egg industry is able to compete. (Courtesy: Kihei Poultry/2022)

The bird flu outbreak on the mainland has killed — or necessitated the killing — of 43 million chickens over the past year. The highly pathogenic avian influenza came in two separate waves, the second towards the end of last year in time for the holidays when demand typically surges, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And despite Hawaii not being affected directly by avian flu, restaurants and consumers are feeling it.

‘The Rising Cost Of Everything’

Ethel’s Grill in Kalihi has cut breakfast from its menu, as the mainland eggs it typically buys have more than doubled in price, from $70 per case of 30 dozen eggs to up to $200.

The $1.75 per egg price point means Ethel’s will skip certain egg-based meals to keep other menu favorites going, until prices come back to normal.

Minaka Ishii-Urquidi, who runs Ethel’s with her husband Robert, said that while local eggs may be cheaper at the moment, they come with a four-day wait that doesn’t work for their business.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

It’s not the first time bird flu has impacted Hawaii, directly or indirectly. The disease tore through chickens on the mainland in 2014 and 2015. It took about six months for the flocks to recover.

Many restaurants around the state have once again found themselves just biding time until the market returns to normal, according to Hawaii Restaurant Association Executive Director Sheryl Matsuoka.

“The restaurants are really challenged,” she said. “It’s not only ‘eggflation,’ it’s the rising cost of everything.”

Matsuoka says restaurants have been dealing with price fluctuations for months, as restaurants bear the cost of increased expenses higher up in the food chain, such as fuel or feed costs, for local eggs.

Hatching A Better Market Plan

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture says the 60% jump in the retail cost of mainland eggs tracks with the increased prices on the mainland.

But eggs in Hawaii are usually more expensive than the mainland anyway, so a snapshot survey by DOA in December that found local egg prices had mostly stayed the same — with some price increases at less than 10% — was relatively good news, according to Matthew Loke, a state DOA administrator.

DOA does no formal monitoring of the egg market, despite it being among the state’s top 10 agricultural commodities in 2021, when production was worth $10.6 million. The employee in charge of monitoring the industry quit during the pandemic and has yet to be replaced.

Since November 2021, the state’s production has increased markedly, with the opening of the 200,000-layer Waialua Egg Farm in Central Oahu.

The chickens at Villa Rose’s Waialua Egg Farm live in climate controlled houses, from which their manure is moved out on a conveyer belt. (Courtesy: Hidden Villa Ranch)

The facility has yet to reach its operating capacity. Only four of its 10 houses – which take 50,000 chickens each – are filled with birds at this point.

But the recent uptick in demand has led Villa Rose, its mainland parent company, to expedite the opening of four more houses to double production by year’s end. The operation can eventually hold 1 million cage-free chickens. The owners intend to replace mainland eggs.

“We wished we could have doubled production before this but there’s no way we could have known,” farm manager Avery Barry said.

Other egg operations, such as Waialua Egg Farm, have had to turn new customers away as they reach their peak capacity in the current market.

“The scales are tipping a little.”

– Emily Taaroa, Puna Chicks

Big Island’s Puna Chicks, which produces about 20,000 eggs a year, has been in production for two and a half years. This is the first time its eggs have been cheaper than the mainland’s.

As a result, there’s been an uptick in demand and calls from the public.

“Our direct demand has definitely gone up, which has affected our supply to the grocery stores,” Emily Taaroa of Puna Chicks said. “The scales are tipping a little, towards people wanting to get it from the source.”

Puna Chicks, which also raises chickens for meat, has been affected by the avian flu directly as well. An order for new chicks was recently canceled as the mainland farm was within the radius of an outbreak, something other operations have said they are struggling with.

Feeding The Flock

The local egg industry had been selling its eggs at supermarkets with minimal mark-up to attract customers. But the cost has gone up across Hawaii, mainly due to the increased cost of feed.

Taaroa estimates the cost of feeding her chickens 20,000 pounds per month has increased by 20% in the past two years. It’s a price the business has absorbed.

But not all operations are able to do so. Waialua Egg Farm has upped its prices twice, while Shaka Moa has also increased its prices.

Mainland egg prices are now on par with locally produced eggs due to the bird flu. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That cost has been passed on to consumers, but local eggs remain on par with the inflated mainland egg prices.

Online grocery delivery service Farm Link Hawaii – which purchased $50,000 in local eggs in 2022 – has increased its price by $1 per dozen because of feed costs.

Farm Link’s director of supply chain Faun Skyles says eggs remain one of the outlet’s top-selling grocery items.

“The current shortage of imported eggs is a reminder of how important it is for us to foster a thriving local production system,” Skyles said.

Staving Off The Flu

Hawaii remains bird flu-free in large part due to being in the middle of the Pacific, away from the migratory birds that have spread the disease throughout the mainland.

Birds are also quarantined before coming into the state to keep any disease from spreading.

But DOA Veterinary Medical Officer Raquel Wong says there are birds that can transmit variants of bird flu in Hawaii, such as golden plovers, or kolea, which carry the virus but are not affected.

The Pacific golden plover, locally known as kolea, migrate to Hawaii from Alaska each year. (Courtesy: Oscar Johnson)

Avian flu is a cold-weather virus, thriving under consistent sub-70-degree weather, so there is less risk in Hawaii. But influenza viruses can mutate.

The DOA Animal Industry Division conducts inspections on all livestock and poultry coming into the state, including chickens.

“Vigilance is probably the best response, just because it’s endemic in the wild populations,” Wong said.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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