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Shell Shock: Caterers Cope with Higher Egg Prices

Many caterers are grappling with higher prices for egg products, a headache brought on by a big outbreak of avian flu in 15 U.S. states starting in December.

Many caterers are grappling with higher prices for egg products, a headache brought on by a big outbreak of avian flu in 15 U.S. states starting in December.

According to an informal poll this week from Special Events, 45 percent of caterers say they have been facing higher prices for eggs in the last six months. As egg farmers have watched chickens die or have had to euthanize ill birds to protect the rest of the flock, the average wholesale price of a dozen large eggs in May rose 120 percent from mid-April, according to commodity tracking firm Urner Barry, when the disease ran rampant.

In some good news, the outbreak has largely spared chickens raised for their meat, so those prices have remained stable. But the eggs raised to create liquid egg products—popular in catering because they are easy to handle and pasteurized for food safety—have been hit hard. As a result, prices for liquid eggs are likely to continue to rise, a spokesman for Urner Barry tells Special Events. The prices for shell eggs should ease, the Urner Barry spokesman adds, in part because consumers have cut back on buying eggs due to sharply higher prices in the supermarket.

FLAT PRICES RISE "In the last six months, our egg prices have gone from $22 a flat, or $0.12 an egg, to as high as $32 a flat, or $0.17 an egg," says John Merrill, general manager of Food in Bloom, based in Portland, Ore. "In the last two months or so, they have come down a bit and are currently at $28 a flat, or $0.15 per egg."

How does he cope with problems in the coop? "We have been absorbing the cost as we feel that there is enough margin in the items that use them the most--the baked pastries and breakfast sandwiches/burritos--to cover the expense," Merrill says. "We will keep an eye on it and reevaluate it next quarter to see if it comes back down."

The majority of caterers polled say they are absorbing cost increases. But Rachel Work, owner of Ventura, Calif.-based Main Course California, has raised the price of her deviled eggs by 20 percent. "We are also trying to sell other things on our menu," she adds.  

The culinary team at Denver-based Epicurean Group is handling eggs with extra care. "We are cautious about how we use them, have been freezing some liquid eggs for later, and have taken care to make sure we are good with vendors in the future," explains chef Jenna Johansen. "Many vendors are making 'deals,' such as only selling eggs in the future to current customers."

Looking ahead, "We are adjusting proposals in the future to involve other breakfast/brunch items than eggs," Johansen adds. "We are also working on other proteins than chicken for proposals at low budget in the future."

HIGH PRICES TO PERSIST The higher prices could persist for some time. Farmers must wait for the USDA to give them the go-ahead to repopulate flocks after disposing of infected birds and disinfecting farms—a process that could take a year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As a result, "We are carefully watching our overall food cost and working to keep it where it should be," says Jeffrey Ware, director of operations for Catering by Michaels of Morton Grove, Ill. "Items that contain a lot of egg are having their prices increased and we are absorbing the cost for other items right now."

Going forward, Ware adds, "Sales staff education is key to reducing egg usage on menus. In catering, because we are selling for the future, this can be difficult. With egg prices expected to continue rising through Q4, we are going to be very strategic with holiday menus."

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