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National Restaurant Association - What you need to know about bird flu and eggs

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What you need to know about bird flu and eggs

John Howeth, the American Egg Board’s senior vice president of foodservice and egg-product marketing, answers questions on the recent outbreak of avian influenza and what it means for restaurants and consumers.

What is the latest update on the avian influenza outbreak?

We are experiencing a very serious outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the United States. As of June 3, 20 commercial egg farms have tested positive for AI, totaling more than 35 million egg-laying hens in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. This is about 10 percent of all “layer hens” in the United States, and an estimated 30 percent of the layers dedicated to the egg-products business, such as liquid eggs, powdered eggs and egg yolks.

Where can I get the latest news on outbreaks?

Because AI findings on egg and poultry farms are announced shortly after positive test confirmations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website is the most current source of information.

How is the egg industry handling the outbreak?

It is working closely with state and federal officials on key response issues, including euthanasia of flocks, management of mortality on farms, indemnity provisions that ensure affected farms can recover, and research into possible vaccines.

How is the disease transmitted?

It is not yet known exactly how the virus is being transmitted; migratory waterfowl are believed to be a primary vector. There is also evidence of some lateral transmission from farm-to-farm, and the government is currently undertaking a detailed epidemiological assessment to better understand the virus’s spread.

Should we be concerned about public safety?

Maintaining the health and well-being of hens and producing safe, healthy eggs is of utmost importance to U.S. egg farmers. The strains of AI found here are not a public health concern and have not affected any humans to date, as confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also is important for consumers to know the infection cannot be transmitted through safely handled and properly cooked eggs.

How do we know eggs are safe?

Mechanisms are in place to protect the egg supply. Facilities where AI has been detected are not allowed to ship shell eggs to market. Furthermore, the Secure Egg Supply Plan states that AI-infected facilities must provide shipment information for at least 21 days pre-outbreak so eggs can be traced as needed. In addition, liquid eggs are pasteurized and pasteurization kills avian influenza.

How will the outbreak affect pricing?

Egg farmers are committed to providing a safe, ample supply of eggs at affordable prices, but it’s likely there will be some disruption as we work to restore the egg-farming community to full production levels.

Is there a shortage of egg products?

Several large facilities making egg products are experiencing disruptions in supply. Processors in the industry are utilizing every resource to find shell eggs that can be converted to egg products. Additionally, producers in unaffected areas are ramping up to supply the marketplace, but this will take time.

What does this mean for foodservice operators?

There could be some shortages, but we are finding that some operators are starting to use shell eggs, which are still available, to replace egg products.

Can eggs and egg products be imported?

The federal government has very strict policies regarding imported products. Before a country is allowed to import, the production facilities are heavily vetted to ensure imported products are safe and meet USDA standards. As a result, the process takes time. Currently, a few states are approved to export shell eggs to the United States. Also, we’ve been advised that the Netherlands was reinstated to export pasteurized egg products here. This, hopefully, will relieve some pressure on supply.

What other strategies are being discussed?

Producers are looking at diverting shell eggs intended for the consumer market to help exacerbate the shortfall in liquid- and dried-egg product. Also, our exports have slowed so some of those eggs may find their way to the domestic market.

What about egg replacements?

There has been some discussion, but we hope eggs are not replaced. Nevertheless, we understand the position food manufacturers are in.

What are important considerations to think about when using replacers?

Functionality, performance, taste, consumer recognition of the ingredients on the label, and food safety are just a few. Our research shows that manufacturers do try replacers, but are reluctant to make the transition mainly because of performance ‑ especially texture. Eggs, clearly, are the best choice.

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