Why California's Egg Shortage Is Much Worse Than Any Other State

Californians are reportedly crossing the border with Mexico to buy cheaper eggs as prices for the grocery staple in the Golden State are now among the most expensive in the entire country.

The price of eggs has surged all across the U.S. recently. This is because of the bird flu outbreak that has killed millions of poultry in America and a dozen countries, and the rising costs of feed, labor and energy after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Egg-laying hen
A hen belonging to Casim Abbas, a mathematics professor at Michigan State University, roams the property of his small egg farm at his home in Williamston, Michigan, on February 8, 2023. Californians are paying among the highest prices in the country for a dozen eggs. MATTHEW HATCHER/AFP via Getty Images

Other states—such as Iowa, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska—saw larger increases in the average price for a dozen eggs than California, where prices have surged by 31 percent year-on-year between December 2021 and December 2022, according to Instacart. But California is among the top five states paying the most for a dozen eggs, at an average $6.05 as of December.

In part, this is because eggs were already more expensive in California than in other states across the country in 2022. The cost of living, for a number of reasons, is generally simply higher in the Golden State than in other areas of the country.

In part, it's because of the particular legislative situation in the state. In 2018, California voters passed Proposition 12. This is a ballot initiative requiring that animals are housed in cage-free confinement systems that comply with minimum standards for freedom of movement and minimum floor space.

Proposition 12 protects farm animals—including egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves—from some of the egg and meat industry's cruellest practices. The legislation keeps them out of cages.

At the time, critics voiced fears that the new rule—which required farmers to comply by 2022—would cause the price of eggs to skyrocket, but that didn't happen. While it costs money, time and effort for farmers to retrofit existing facilities to comply with the new law, egg prices remained relatively unchanged immediately after the law came into force.

What happened instead is that, in the past few months, millions of egg-laying hens living in cage-free farms had to be culled in California. This was to prevent the further spread of the devastating bird-flu outbreak that has been unfolding since early in 2022.

These hens need to be replaced, by law, by other cage-free birds, but California simply doesn't have enough stock to fill the grocery shelves with the quota of egg cartons. It also takes time for the young birds to reach the level of maturity necessary to lay eggs.

In early January, egg prices in California reached $7.37 on average. And though they slightly drifted by the end of January, at $5.62 a dozen on average, Californians remain wary.

According to the Los Angeles Times, border patrol agents have noticed a recent surge in the number of people trying to sneak eggs across the border from Mexico. There, eggs remain much cheaper than in California, though the Mexican price has increased too. Transporting eggs across the border is illegal.

In January, Sidney Aki, director of field operations for San Diego Field Office, tweeted a reminder that "uncooked eggs are prohibited entry from Mexico into the U.S." This is because of the risk of spreading the bird flu through contact with an infected surface. "Failure to declare agriculture items can result in penalties of up to $10,000," Aki added.