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How Sonoma County bird flu outbreak could affect consumers

The Press Democrat - 12/2/2023

Dec. 1—Sonoma County shoppers could see higher prices for eggs and duck meat this upcoming holiday season after two local poultry operations detected a deadly strain of the avian influenza, more commonly known as the bird flu.

According to a notice posted to the California State Department of Agriculture website Friday morning, the first case was detected at Reichardt Duck Farm in the Two Rock area the day before Thanksgiving. The second was detected Monday at a Sunrise Farms operation on Bodega Avenue.

The two cases forced the euthanasia of more than a quarter of a million ducks and laying hens, putting a nearly $50 million local industry at risk.

Restaurateurs in Sonoma County, however, aren't overly concerned about impacts from the local outbreak. Though they may see price increases on eggs and ducks as a result of shortages that result from response to the infections, it is a problem they've faced before during national bird flu outbreaks.

In 2022, 59 million birds across the U.S. — chickens, ducks, and turkeys, primarily — were killed during the largest avian flu outbreak in history, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Large factory farms that supply the wider commodity food market were most affected.

Stark Reality Restaurants' Executive Chef de Cuisine, David Zimmerman, said last year's outbreak in the Midwest affected turkey prices this Thanksgiving for Stark's Steakhouse & Seafood because the restaurant did their ordering in June when poultry stock was still low.

But Zimmerman said the Stark's eight restaurant menus don't usually see wild pricing fluctuations because they work with higher-end purveyors and distributors, which usually insulates them.

That doesn't mean there won't still be ups and downs for the local food industry.

"We've been dealing with this for a long time," said Janine Kopping, district sales representative for BiRite Food Service Distributors. The Brisbane-based company provides a variety of goods — including meats, cheese, beverages and produce — to hundreds of North Bay restaurants and grocers.

Though the BiRite doesn't stock Reichardt Ducks or Sunrise Farms eggs, Kopping echoed the fact that consumer costs were significantly affected by last year's outbreak.

Because so many birds were lost, egg prices were up to $90 a case last year but came down to about $30 per case this year as flocks rebounded, she said.

"It's such a delicate web. When you're dealing with a natural product like an animal, there are so many things that affect it," she said. That could be anything from droughts and rising grain prices to driver shortages in the delivery industry.

"It's a mess out there. Consumers are asking why things are so expensive, but it's all connected," said Kopping.

A number of restaurants and grocery stores contacted by The Press Democrat said they did not purchase meat or eggs from either of the two farms that were affected, so they did not expect any immediate impact.

Alison Smith, the director of operations and supply chain for Redwood Empire Food Bank, said the food bank buys roughly 50,000 dozen eggs a month from farms throughout Northern California, but not Sunrise Farms.

She said that even if the virus did reach their local suppliers, the food bank would try to source eggs wherever it could get them but could be forced to spend more for them.

"At every food distribution, eggs are available to our neighbors, which is a really important protein," Smith said. "So if supply is interrupted, that will also be impactful because then it's about spending more money or making a decision that we can't supply the eggs and that's a really awful decision to make."

You can reach Staff Writer Sara Edwards at 707-521-5487 or sara.edwards@pressdemocrat. com. On Twitter @sedwards380.

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