The impacts of highly pathogenic avian influenza: egg shortages and the potential for economically motivated adulteration
Report Prepared By: Karen Everstine, PhD; Yahaira Morales, DHS-STEM Scholar and Aisha Ramos, DHS-STEM Scholar
The 2014-2015 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza began in December of 2014 and continues to threaten the United States’ supply of eggs and egg products. This outbreak has affected approximately 50 million birds, comprising 10% of the country’s laying hens. FPDI developed this Current Issues Report to inform stakeholders and consumers about one of the potential downstream effects to our food system, economically motivated adulteration of eggs.
Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of food is the intentional adulteration or misrepresentation of foods or food ingredients for economic gain. EMA has occurred in a wide range of food products and involved many different methods of fraud. The perpetrators of EMA do not intend to cause illnesses in consumers; however, there are multiple examples of situations in which consumers have become ill as a result of consuming fraudulent food products.
In contrast with foodborne pathogen contamination, the drivers behind the risk of EMA include many societal and human factors. These include supplier relationships, the structure of the supply chain, audit strategies, geopolitical factors, and the economic environment. Therefore, the development of programs and strategies to reduce the risk of EMA is a complex challenge.
Egg Production and the Outbreak
The U.S. is the largest producer of eggs and egg products. The five largest companies are responsible for almost half of U.S. production. Ninety-nine percent of hens in the country are held by the top 180 egg-producing companies, each with flocks of 75,000 hens or more. The top 5 states for egg production are Iowa (33 million hens), Ohio (30 million), Indiana (26 million), Pennsylvania (23 million) and Texas (15 million). Minnesota is the 9th largest egg-producing state with almost 9 million hens. In the U.S., shell eggs are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and egg products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Egg products are eggs that have been removed from their shell and processed into products such as liquid whole eggs, liquid whites or yolks, and dried eggs. The various aspects of importation of eggs and egg products into the U.S. are overseen by multiple agencies, including FDA, FSIS, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).
Since December 2014, USDA has reported 223 detections of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5 in the United States affecting almost 50 million birds (including turkeys, pullet chickens, broiler chickens, and layer chickens). Minnesota and Iowa have been the hardest-hit states, with 105 and 75 detections, respectively. Between May 1 and August 1, the table egg flock size dropped from 296 million layers to 271 million due to the outbreak. Shell egg production was down 10% in July compared to the same month last year. Egg prices per dozen have been substantially higher than both last year and the 3-year average, as reported by the Agricultural Marketing Service.
Even harder hit has been the egg products sector, with about 35 million hens affected by the outbreak. Liquid egg production has been lower than last year, with year-to-date totals of liquid white down 17% and liquid yolk down 19%. In-line production has also been significantly lower than last year.
Due to shortages resulting from the outbreak, importation of egg products from five facilities in the Netherlands was recently allowed by USDA FSIS. At the end of July, the first shipment of shell eggs arrived from Mexico to the U.S. intended for processing. Countries approved by AMS to export shell eggs to the U.S. for breaking and use by U.S. food processors also include the Netherlands, Argentina, Chile, Germany, France, Portugal, and Spain. Reports indicate that it could take up to two years for production in the U.S. to rebound to pre-outbreak levels.
Given that supply shortages and price increases are cited as economic factors that can increase EMA vulnerability in food ingredients, the question arises about whether there may be an increased risk of EMA in eggs due to the HPAI outbreak. Since 2012, the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI) has maintained a database of EMA incidents. The database contains nine documented incidents of EMA in eggs, six of which involved mislabeling. Mislabeling is the intentional misrepresentation of the quality, harvesting, or processing techniques of a food product. In the case of eggs, it typically involves fraudulent labeling of shell eggs as “organic” or “cage free.” One incident involved the addition of the industrial chemical Sudan IV to duck feed in China to enhance the color of the yolks of duck eggs. Eggs in China were also previously found to contain melamine, possibly due to addition of the chemical to animal feed. Melamine is an industrial chemical that contains a high percentage of nitrogen, which fraudulently increases the apparent protein content of products tested with non-specific methods such as Kjeldahl. There have been multiple unsubstantiated reports of the production of entirely fraudulent shell eggs in China using various chemical ingredients. Finally, one historical incident (from 1910) in the U.S. involved the addition of formaldehyde to cans of liquid eggs to mask decomposition.
Potential adulterants of liquid or dried egg products may include oils, whey, and emulsifiers. However, there are no records of this type of EMA in either the FPDI EMA Incidents Database or the United States Pharmacopeia Food Fraud Database. Certain sectors of the food industry (such as bakeries) have re-formulated recipes to reduce the volume of eggs needed. There are egg replacers on the market intended for industrial use in vegetarian and other egg-free products. There have also been reports of rationing of eggs at retail grocery stores and restaurants.
Other than mislabeling of production processes such as organic and cage-free, widespread EMA in a raw product like shell eggs would likely be challenging both logistically and economically. Processed egg products, as an FSIS-regulated product, are subject to continuous inspection during production. This likely decreases the vulnerability of egg products to EMA during production.
History has shown us that EMA has occurred, and will likely continue to occur, in a broad range of food products. Fortunately, regulatory oversight combined with the lack of an inexpensive and readily accessible substitute for eggs present challenges to potential perpetrators. The food industry and consumers have been addressing the shortages in eggs and egg products in the U.S. through the reformulation of recipes and a reduction in consumption. It is currently not anticipated that widespread EMA in eggs is a high risk due to the HPAI outbreak.