A city worker sells eggs at government subsidized prices as people line… (Alexandre Meneghini/AP )
MEXICO CITY — It is the Great Mexican Egg Crisis, and it will not be over easy, though there will be puns, especially in the Mexican press, which is cracking a lot of jokes.
But seriously: The public here is faced with an extreme shortage of eggs in a country that has the highest-per-capita egg consumption on the planet.
Highest being 22.4 kilograms (about 50 pounds) per person in 2011, or more than 400 eggs a year, depending on the size of the egg, according to Mexico’s National Poultry Industry.
There has been hoarding, price spikes and two-hour lines to buy eggs. Some retail outlets have been forced to limit how many cartons a day a customer can buy.
American hens have been called to the rescue.
An outbreak of AH7N3 avian flu virus is partly responsible. The deadly bird flu was detected in June on poultry farms in the Pacific coast state of Jalisco, and Mexican farmers and the government acted with lethal authority and slaughtered 11 million chickens to prevent its spread.
Within weeks of the outbreak, 90 additional million hens were vaccinated against the virus, with a second round of inoculation now underway.
Because of the mass culling, and stoked by price gouging and the soaring cost of chicken feed, the price of eggs has doubled this summer in Mexico, on average from less than 20 pesos to more than 40 pesos a kilo, or from $1.50 to $3. There’s about 16 or so eggs in a kilo.
This might not sound like much (unless you’re a family of five eating 2,000 eggs a year), but the rapid rise for a basic commodity and the attempts by the government at the highest level to calm the storm expose Mexico’s greatest vulnerability, a stubborn, punishing poverty.
While the nation is steadily becoming more prosperous, competitive and middle class, about half of all Mexicans still live in poverty — and the slightest change, just a few pennies in the cost of tortillas, beans, cooking oil, gasoline and eggs — can send shudders through the population.
“This is no joke, because Mexicans like their eggs, and the price of eggs is the price of breakfast, and it is breakfast that gets children to school, people to work,” said Carmen Moreno, who tends a food stall at the municipal market in the Roma neighborhood in Mexico City.
And few cultures have done more marvelous things with breakfast eggs than Mexican cuisine, which serves them scrambled, poached and fried, with beans, chiles, tomatoes, onions, salsas and tortillas.
“The egg is essential,” said a major egg broker in Los Mochis, in the Pacific state of Sinaloa, who asked not to be named because he also blamed the government for mismanagement of the crisis. “For 8 pesos, a person can eat two eggs, a sausage and three tortillas. It’s a very good breakfast, for the price of two cigarettes.”
Last week, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon went on television to promise to bring egg prices down — and to punish speculators.
“We will not allow Mexican families, especially those who have less, to see their pocketbooks affected by unjustified increases in the price of this basic commodity,” Calderon said.
The federal government’s Office of the Consumer began a public health campaign last week called “You Can Choose to Eat Healthy” that offered menus for egg-free breakfasts.
So adios huevos rancheros, hola bananas with yogurt.
To stabilize the market, Mexico’s Economic Secretary Bruno Ferrari suspended tariffs on egg imports, and American hens came to the rescue, with thousands of additional tons of U.S. eggs headed south.
Calderon also announced $230 million in emergency financing to restore production and replace about 11 million chickens slaughtered after the June outbreak of bird flu. The president said 3 million hens were headed out to the farms.
The Mexican government is sending inspectors to stop speculation that Calderon blamed for high egg prices, which have contributed to a small bump in inflation.
A program to monitor the sale of eggs and chicken has led to investigations into 1,299 retailers for possible price gouging, according to the Associated Press.
This might make matters worse. Mexico’s Association of Egg Vendors is warning its members not to sell eggs at prices above 40 pesos, because they might face fines. But because they say they can’t make a profit, the sellers prefer to sit on their eggs, rather than sell at a loss.
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.