AP fact check: Egg shortage breeds chicken-feed conspiracies

vFILE - Eggs on display at Shaw's grocery store on Jan. 31, 2023, in Cohasset, Massachusetts. (Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Social media users claim to have found a new culprit for sky-high egg prices: chicken feed.

The theory gained steam on Facebook, TikTok and Twitter in recent weeks, with some users reporting that their hens stopped laying eggs and speculating that common chicken feed products were the cause. Some went a step further to suggest that feed producers had intentionally made their products deficient to stop backyard egg production, forcing people to buy eggs at inflated prices.

"One of the largest egg producers in the country cut a deal with one of the largest feed producers in the country to change their feed formula, so it no longer contains enough protein and minerals for your chickens to produce eggs," one Facebook user wrote in a post shared more than 2,000 times. "They are now price gouging eggs to make bank."

But poultry experts say there’s no evidence for such claims. Here’s a closer look at the facts.

CLAIM: Chicken feed companies have altered their products to stop backyard hens from laying eggs and drive up demand for commercial eggs.

THE FACTS: U.S. egg prices in grocery stores more than doubled over the past year due to an outbreak of bird flu, combined with increasing labor and supply costs.

Some backyard chicken owners may have separately found their chickens underperforming, but experts say the issues are unrelated. While feed quality can affect hens’ egg-laying abilities, state agricultural officials told The Associated Press they have not heard of any widespread issues with feed affecting egg production, and several major feed suppliers say they haven’t changed their formulas.

Experts say there are far more mundane explanations for the poultry’s meager production.

"Is there a broad conspiracy? No, there’s not a broad conspiracy," said Todd Applegate, a professor in poultry science at the University of Georgia. "Beyond feed, there are a lot, probably even more so, things from the management and from the bird’s environment that creates different things that would cause her to either go out of production or lower her production."

More than 43 million of the 58 million birds slaughtered over the past year to control the bird flu virus have been egg-laying chickens, The Associated Press has reported.

"Because of high path avian influenza, we’ve had to depopulate millions of laying hens. And when you take that many chickens out of production, there’s fewer eggs," said Ken Anderson, a poultry industry specialist at North Carolina State University. "And when there’s fewer eggs, the price goes up."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and a farmer-led advocacy group have called for an investigation into potential egg price-gouging by producers. But there is no evidence that altered chicken feed is driving steep egg prices.

Agricultural officials in multiple states, including North Carolina and Georgia, told the AP they have received no reports of widespread problems.

"Our members have not really heard any exact reports of any correlation between the feed and egg production," said Austin Therrell, executive director of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a group of local, state and federal agencies responsible for regulating animal feeds.

Therrell noted, however, that officials have fielded questions from people who saw feed-related claims on social media.

Other factors could explain the individual reports of low backyard egg yields, experts say. Limited daylight hours in the winter can reduce or stop hens’ egg production, as can cold weather, said Applegate. Improperly stored feed can become compromised and affect egg production, too.

"Backyard flock producers don’t necessarily follow lighting programs to support peak egg production," Anderson said. "A lot of backyard flock people utilize natural daylight."

Many social media users claimed that specific feed products, such as those offered by Purina Animal Nutrition and Tractor Supply, a chain of farm supplies stores, were at fault. Some said their hens started laying again after they switched feeds or made their own. But the companies deny that their products are to blame.

"We confirm there have not been formulation changes to Purina poultry feed products," Brooke Dillon, a spokesperson for Land O’Lakes, the parent company of Purina Animal Nutrition, wrote in an email. Similarly, Mary Winn Pilkington, a spokesperson for Tractor Supply, said that its suppliers confirmed there has been "no change to the nutritional profile" of their feed products.

Feed products have been recalled in the past for improper nutrition, according to Adam Fahrenholz, an associate professor of feed milling at North Carolina State University. But while feed nutrition issues, like insufficient protein, can reduce egg production, he found no merit in online claims of a massive conspiracy.

"I don’t find it plausible from the standpoint of an intentional, large scale, you know, planned event at all," Fahrenholz added.

The conspiracy that feed companies are deliberately trying to sabotage backyard egg supplies found an audience thanks to a broader distrust of government officials and experts, said Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo who focuses on misinformation. It’s common for people to look for scapegoats during periods of social anxiety, he said. The claims join other recent conspiracies alleging a coordinated effort to undermine the nation’s food supply.

"The official narrative is kind of reminding us that we are sometimes vulnerable to the randomness of nature," Ophir said.