With Americans cooking much more at home, demand has grown for eggs — to scramble, fry, bake or crack into any number of meals. But it will cost you.
The tripling in price of a dozen regular eggs in many parts of the country — to an excess of $3 — has prompted various lawsuits aimed at egg producers and sellers.
Amid a variety of cases of inflated prices all across the United States, those focused on the humble egg are among the most sweeping, despite what at first glance appears to be a relatively modest sum.
The Texas attorney general and a group of private individuals in California filed suit separately in late April against the largest egg producer in the United States for what they call excessive, unfair and illegal profits during the pandemic.
The California lawsuit also threw in other producers; giant supermarket chains like Whole Foods, Costco and Trader Joe’s; and major egg wholesalers, for a total of 26 defendants.
“As in any time of economic turmoil, there are those who seek to profit from the misery of millions,” read the complaint in the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
It all goes back to March, as the pandemic gathered force and shoppers stampeded down supermarket aisles, stripping them of goods deemed essential, including toilet paper, hand sanitizer and, yes, eggs.
The average wholesale price for Grade A large eggs surged from $1.01 to $3.07 per dozen in March, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average price in Texas rose to $3.18, with the price of a dozen large brown eggs climbing as high as $3.44 in April, the lawsuit said.
The complaint, filed by Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, accused the nation’s largest egg producer, Cal-Maine Foods, headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, of inflating egg prices 300%, calling the increase “exorbitant, excessive and unjustified.”
The suit, filed in Harris County District Court, also named Wharton County Foods, a Cal-Maine subsidiary in Texas.
California law sets a maximum 10% price increase for goods during a state of emergency, which Gov. Gavin Newsom declared March 4. The Texas law lacks a specific parameter, but the spirit is similar. Gov. Greg Abbott first declared a state of emergency March 13.
Eggs are a cheap source of protein, which makes them especially important with millions added to the unemployment rolls every week and with meat becoming scarcer.
If an increase to more than $3 for a carton seems modest, perhaps a bit of math is in order.
On average, Americans consume about 293 eggs per year, according to the USDA. Californians eat even more, an average 300 per person. With a population of 40 million people, that works out to roughly 1 billion eggs per month.
The lawyers in California, who filed a class-action suit, contend that redress should cover every person in the state who bought eggs during the state of emergency. Texas is also seeking restitution. Even if that works out to $5 to $20 per consumer, it would be a significant sum.
It is not yet clear, however, whether the courts will accept the cases, especially in California, where the possible number of consumers affected is unusually large.
The Texas lawsuit contends that Cal-Maine, which owns its entire production and distribution process, faced no supply issues or other disruptions to drive up costs. It is a “powerhouse” both in Texas and nationally, the suit said, producing one-fifth of the eggs in the United States under various brand names including Eggland’s Best, Land O’Lakes, Farmhouse and 4-Grain.
The company strongly denied the allegations in both lawsuits. “Cal-Maine has not exploited this tragic national pandemic for gain,” it said in a statement, contending, among other issues, that it bought eggs on the open market to meet orders during the peak demand period.
In California, various defendants either declined to comment or rejected the allegations. “This case has no merit,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, public relations director for Trader Joe’s, in an email. “Even while our egg costs were rising, we chose not to raise our retail prices on eggs during the time referenced.”
Costco issued a statement denying any price gouging and saying it had lodged complaints with government agencies over prices charged by egg suppliers.
The consumer protection law under which the California suit was filed puts the onus on the defendants to prove that they were not price gouging, said Deborah Hensler, a specialist in class-action lawsuits at Stanford University Law School.
“They are suing everybody,” Hensler said. “They did not want to put all their eggs in one basket.”
The California lawsuit was brought by a relatively small Alabama firm that uses its website to appeal to consumers who think that they have been defrauded. The firm did not respond to requests for comment.
Eggs have remained in high demand since the pandemic erupted, although prices, always volatile, have eased somewhat as people have started stockpiling less. Overall, the USDA estimates that average wholesale prices for regular eggs in 2020 will be 35% more than in 2019, or about $1.27 per dozen.
In spring, the appeal of eggs usually sinks after the Easter Bunny hops away, according to the USDA, but that did not happen this year.
The prosaic needs of cooking at home likely played a role in the demand, even beyond those who consider the pandemic a chance to develop their inner chef.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, published a cooking series for beginners called “How to Boil Water” that included a recipe for fried eggs, albeit with crispy edges. (Spoiler alert: Fry the eggs in already hot oil.)
Meanwhile, on Twitter, someone suggested perhaps the egg recipe for the moment. It’s basically poached eggs in bubbling tomato sauce.
The name? “Eggs in Purgatory.”