The USDA announced this week that it’s launching a plan to stockpile a huge cache of vaccines against the avian flu which swept through bird populations this year. Sounds pretty reasonable! There’s only one problem: As of yet, there are no approved vaccines.
The USDA request was pretty frank about the lack, noting early on its request that the agency “has not approved the use of vaccine.” So why did they then go on to immediately ask for between 100-500 million doses of a vaccine we don’t yet have at all to be produced posthaste? The explanation, or at least the start of one, can be found right in your grocery store, specifically over in the egg section.
You’ve probably already noticed egg prices steadily climbing, although just how unusual the jump is gets a lot clearer when you see it in comparison to years past. That skyrocketing red line you see there below is what happened this year—and it’s not even close to done. What changed? A strange and unusually hard-hitting bird flu season that hit chicken farms especially hard to the tune of over 48 million birds.
The latest forecasts project that we’re only going to see even higher egg prices in 2016. Just how high depends on where you are in the country, though there are already places where the price is inching over towards $4, and at least one analyst is already calling an audible on the $6 carton of eggs arriving by 2016. Any jump in a basic food price like that is going to cause some worry—but the real problem is that eggs could only be the start.
For reasons that aren’t yet clear, farms that raise chickens were hit hard this year, while farms that raise chickens for meat were relatively unscathed. (That’s why eggs were jumping while chicken was getting steadily cheaper all year long). Turkey farmers have also been eyeing the outbreak worriedly. Although the flu outbreak seems to have died down quite a bit for this year, what will happen in next year’s outbreak is already causing farmers to fret—and just because this year’s outbreak centered mainly on egg farms is no guarantee that next year’s will be so specific.
Still, even if the vaccine hasn’t yet been approved, it certainly seems close on the horizon, with tests on a promising one already well underway. The fact that the agency is trying to get a jump on stockpiling it, before it’s even officially approved, is just a sign of how seriously the avian flu could hit our poultry supplies next year without one—even harder than it already has.
Top image: anyaivanova/Shutterstock.