The 3-day International Poultry Expo at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta concludes today. The annual event sponsored by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association comes after a tumultuous year that left the industry’s egg producers with a lot to talk about. With their product usually thought of as a cheap protein source and food staple, they usually just talk up the incredible egg at the Expo. A year ago, they were worried about national egg prices declining as California accepted only “cage-free” eggs, which they knew would fetch a premium because they’d be in short supply. But those expectations were wrong. High egg prices dominated in 2015 because the Avian Flu problem turned into a massive disaster. Before the ended, 211 commercial flocks and 21 backyard flocks were infected with Avian Flu. Almost 50 million birds, including thousands upon thousands of laying hens, had to be destroyed. The results were dramatic.batterycage_406x250 Killing so many laying hens caused a spike in national prices. The price of one dozen eggs last summer reached over $2.65, up from a 3-year average of around $1.75. California consumers suffered by paying about $2.00 more per dozen than national prices by region. That, says expert, can be blamed entirely on the cage-free requirement because the state largely cut itself off from the national supply of eggs before the Bird Flu epidemic, which had a minimum impact on laying hens in the Golden State. Overnight, the United States switched from being a net exporter to being a net importer of foreign eggs because demand exceeded supply. In Atlanta this year, the talk was about whether these trend lines will continue. USDA’s latest Agricultural Marketing Service Livestock, Poultry & Grain Market News says regional egg prices are 13.5 to 43 cents per dozen higher, while California is up 40 cents more on Jumbo eggs, 59 cents on larger sizes and 62 cents higher on medium and small sized eggs. California’s high prices continue because  the demand it created for “cage-free” eggs still is not being met with enough supply.  The law permitting only “cage-free” egg sales took effect in California in 2015, but was approved by voters years earlier,  catching  many consumers by surprise. Only about 4.5 percent of the laying hens in the U.S. are kept in housing systems considered to be “cage-free,” according to Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) data for September 2015. That’s up from 2.8 percent a year earlier. In supermarkets, the cage-free eggs may account to one in five eggs on the shelf, according to AMS. That’s because many eggs sold are “broken” for commercial uses, such as ingredients in baking products. The fact that current cage-free egg supplies cannot meet current demand is why various national retail chains are promising  to buy only “cage-free” eggs, but only at some future date. Most eggs in the U.S. are produced in so-called battery cage systems that separate laying hens from their own feces, and collects and removes eggs automatically from the housing system. Animal activists claim such cages are inhumane because laying hens cannot move around and flap their wings. Many in the industry, however, say chickens left to move about get into fights over the “pecking order” in the flock and do harm to one another, resulting in a more stressful life for many hens than when they are caged. “More chickens together, such as in a cage-free system, means more pecking and those chickens lower on the pecking order are being pecked the most,” explains Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers. “That explains why cage-free systems often times have three (3) times more chicken deaths than the modern conventional cages.” “An increase in deaths is hardly better welfare,” adds Klippen, who is attending the Expo. The latest battleground for this debate is Massachusetts where a ballot measure gives the Bay State Legislature time to act before a “cage-free” ballot measure will be sent to voters. Promises to purchase cage-free eggs in the future, but not now,  underscores the simple fact that the supply is just not keeping up with demand.. The pledges, which often are made in concert with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), are a marketing device for the companies that make such promises because they get covered as “news.” And many companies are doing it, including Target, Denny’s, McDonald’s Subway, ConAgra, Mondelez, Kellogg’s, Jack-in-the-Box, Bob Evan’s, Dunkin Donuts, and others who say its will happen but not until  the year 2025. Some are promising to deliver a little sooner, like the year 2020. Promising to be cage-free four years from now are Aramark, Nestle, Centerpiece, Unilever, and Wendy’s. Klippen says he wonders why so many food companies are so willing to increase food prices when more people are falling into the “food insecurity” category. “Egg farmers are advising food companies not to adopt this new policy of buying only cage-free eggs because of the misinformation that they improve the welfare of the chicken or that they improve the quality of the egg.” Major companies making demands almost always results in supply being created, but so far egg producers have been reluctant to toss their battery cages, which are actually “Rube Goldberg-like” contraptions that not only cage the laying hen, but removes the eggs, separates out the manure and delivers food and water all one contraption. Replacing battery cages with another housing system—such as “enriched colony cages–” to give the chickens more room to move around —is a capital investment that can run into millions of dollars for a mid-sized operation. Until egg producers decide to spend their own money or go into debt to make those changes, so-called “cage free” demand is likely to outstrip supply, which usually translates into higher prices and shortages. Egg producers hoped that the Avian Flu epidemic would end after 2015. But two weeks ago, a commercial turkey flock in Dubois County, IN was condemned for the presence of highly pathogenic H&H8 influenza. In responding to the first infections of 2016, state and federal officials said they were reviewing biosecurity practices for all flocks, including those in residential backyards. The N and H protein viruses involved in bird flu have not caused any human illnesses, but the rapid spread that occurs in poultry requires “an immediate response” or “depopulation,” as officials call it. What they mean is the birds are killed and deposed of as rapidly as possible. A 2009-10 federal egg rule provides the latest direction to egg producers on biosecurity.   Editor’s Note:  We will return to the subject of eggs soon to look more closely at biosecurity and egg safety. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)