Petaluma egg producer Arnie Riebli says local egg prices are more likely to rise than fall in the aftermath of the huge Iowa recall linked to a salmonella outbreak.
Riebli, one of the North Bay's largest egg producers, acknowledged Monday that demand could fall if enough consumers stop buying eggs. But he said the recall has squeezed supply, and food distributors already are calling his Sunrise Farms to see if he has extra eggs to sell.
"We've been getting phone calls," said Riebli, a partner in operations that produce more than 1 million eggs a day. "We have to say we're sorry, but we have to take care of the customers we have."
His prediction: prices will rise "at least 25 cents" a dozen.
Other industry observers say it's too early to know whether prices will rise or fall because of the salmonella outbreak. But generally they don't expect a big impact on consumer's pocketbooks.
"There's no particular reason to think this will show up in the supermarket as a big jump," said Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural economics and director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis.
On Monday, federal officials said the outbreak appears limited to two Iowa companies, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, but they don't know what caused it. Even so, they are urging consumers to thoroughly cook eggs and avoid eating "runny egg yolks," as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said.
Officials also are urging shoppers to check carton shipping data for suspect eggs. A long list of recalled brands, plants and carton dates is available at the FDA website, fda.gov.
Hamburg said the FDA hasn't had enough authority to help prevent outbreaks.
He said the salmonella outbreak shows how urgent it is for Congress to pass legislation now stalled in the Senate that would increase the frequency of inspections and give the FDA authority to order a recall. Companies now have to issue such recalls voluntarily.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated 1,300 people may have become ill from eggs tainted by salmonella. That number is expected to increase.
While future egg prices may be hard to predict, two key factors are shoppers' reactions and the fate of millions of suspect laying hens on the Iowa companies' farms.
"It's in the hands of the consumers how they react to this, and the federal government," said Don Bell, a UC Riverside poultry specialist emeritus. "We're destroying eggs. We may be destroying chickens, which would have a longer-term effect. And we may lose demand."
A spokeswoman for the Egg Safety Center said the 550 million recalled eggs, most of which already have been consumed, amount to less than 2 percent of U.S. production.
Riebli and Bell said the number of affected laying hens may be slightly higher, and it only takes a 1 percent change in supply to affect prices.
Instead of killing the hens, the two companies may be allowed to keep the birds alive and send their eggs into pasteurized products, killing any salmonella bacteria. If that happens, Sumner said, other companies might shift more eggs to the fresh market, potentially offsetting one another.