EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 1 (UPI) -- Egg producers are scrambling to restock grocery store shelves after weeks of consumer panic buying month decimated supplies across the country.
"It effectively wiped out all the eggs in the nation," said John Brunnquell, president and CEO of Egg Innovations, which describes itself as the nation's largest pasture-raised egg farm. "Our orders went up 200 to 300 percent."
The United States' overall inventory of shelled eggs was down 10 percent on Friday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The supply of large eggs was down 14 percent.
Egg producers and plants are running on overtime to fill the backlog of orders.
"At our plant, we've gone 15 days now running 24/7," Brunnquell said. "We're grading eggs as fast as we can."
Early efforts are beginning to pay off, Brunnquell said. By the beginning of this week, many stores had at least partially stocked egg cases.
The egg industry expects the demand for retail eggs to remain higher than normal for as long as restaurants remain closed and consumers continue to stay home.
The other wild card is whether egg sales will spike again for Easter, April 12, when eggs are traditionally in high demand.
With more families staying home this holiday, egg coloring is expected to be popular, said Marc Dresner, a spokesman for the American Egg Board, an industry group based in Chicago.
But social distancing means there will be fewer Easter parties and gatherings where people prepare large meals using eggs.
"If we just look at Easter alone, we expect the demand will be lower this year," Dresner said. "But overall demand is still going to be high. It's impossible to predict anything right now, but America's egg farmers are working hard and we are optimistic there will be eggs available for Easter."
The increased demand has started to impact prices. According to the USDA, the average national wholesale price for a dozen white eggs on Friday was $2.58, up from 58 cents a month ago.
Retail egg prices vary widely, however, according to a USDA spokesman. Many retailers have contracts for eggs, so their prices will not change even when the market does. Even supermarkets that are paying more are hesitant to "shock" the consumer by raising prices.
This is the case with Publix Super Markets, based in Lakeland, Fla.
"This has caused a cost increase from our suppliers," Maria Brous, Publix's director of media and community relations, said in an email. "At this time, Publix has not passed along the full amount of this increase to our customers, as we continually work to minimize the impact of this and future cost increases during this evolving situation."
The run on eggs -- and other grocery store staples like bread, meat and potatoes -- began about four weeks ago. Consumers stocking up in preparation for quarantines stripped grocery store shelves bare in many areas of the country.
The initial surge in egg purchases began to taper off by the end of March. But it still could take some time before stocks are fully replenished. That's because the industry can't increase the total number of eggs available right away.
Egg supplies depend on the number of hens in the nation's laying flock -- and that number cannot change quickly. It takes several months for a hen to mature enough to begin laying.
Farmers across the country are adding hens, Dresner said. That process generally takes five to six months.
Wholesalers also are trying to make use of eggs bound for the food service industry, though that, too, takes time.
Normally, the food service industry buys about one-third of the nation's eggs. But, those tend to be pre-processed liquid eggs from facilities that crack eggs rather than package them whole.
"We're working to redirect those eggs," Dresner said. "It's not always easy to do, but we're working on it."