The Great New Zealand Egg Shortage

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter with the Australia bureau.

The pavlova crowns the New Zealand holiday table. Named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, it is a towering pile of whipped cream, meringue and fruit, altogether bearing a resemblance, accidental or otherwise, to the frothy tulle of its namesake’s tutu. (Save yourself the trouble and don’t ask whether the dessert originated on Australian or New Zealand soil.)

New Zealanders might have a “pav,” as the dish is known, at a family gathering, to mark some special occasion or just because someone has some egg whites to use up. At Christmas meals, it is all but compulsory — a final hurrah after slices of hot ham, or roasted potatoes with a leg of lamb.

This year, many families went without their Christmas pav because they simply couldn’t get the eggs.

Since November, New Zealanders have been left scrambling after an egg shortage gripped the country. Supermarket shelves in some areas are bare of eggs, and a clutch of 12 now costs about 6 New Zealand dollars, up 16 percent from the year before, according to the Stats NZ Food Price Index. In some places, supermarkets have limited purchases to two packs per customer.

Desperate for omelets and frittatas, some have entertained the thought of raising chickens. Searches for chickens and “chicken-related items” on New Zealand’s largest auction and classifieds site recently jumped by more than 75 percent. Animal welfare advocates have urged people not to start their own backyard farms, saying that more chickens are surrendered each year than those hungrily eying soufflés-on-demand might expect.

“Please don’t get a chicken unless you can look after it long-term,” Gabby Clezy, the chief executive for the S.P.C.A, one of New Zealand’s largest animal welfare charities, told The Guardian. She noted that the birds can live for more than a decade but produce eggs only during the first two or three years of their life.

But what has caused this shortage?

New Zealand should have an ample supply of eggs in a country where agriculture is a critical part of the economy, with products like lamb, wheat and cheese making up nearly 80 percent of the country’s exports. Demand is as high as ever: Each year, the average New Zealander eats about 237 eggs.

The story behind what might seem like a sudden shortage dates back a decade. In 2012, the New Zealand government told poultry farmers that they would have 10 years to move from caged battery hens to a free-range, colony — a word generally referring to larger cages — or “barn raised” system. At the time, about 80 percent of eggs were laid by battery hens.

The 10-year window was designed to give farmers adequate time to get planning permission from local authorities to adjust their farms, import equipment from Europe and make other necessary arrangements.

A third of these farmers duly switched to colony farming, sometimes paying tens of millions of dollars to do so. But in 2017, New Zealand’s two supermarket chains, Woolworths and Foodstuff, said they would not accept colony farmed eggs from 2025 and 2027 respectively, citing animal welfare concerns. If farmers choose to abandon colonies and switch to another setup — again — money won’t be the only hurdle. They will need to find more space for the chickens, too.

Some have begun to make that switch. Others, including some free-range producers who had been squeezed by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, got out altogether, which reduced egg supplies by about 9 percent between June 2021 and June 2022. It was the biggest drop since records began, Brad Olsen, the principal economist for Infometrics, told the New Zealand publication Stuff.

Still, the dearth of eggs is nothing compared to a 2017 “potatogeddon,” when heavy rains left New Zealand’s potato crop rotting in the soil and made it all but impossible to buy chips or French fries. Speaking to the Guardian at the time, Chris Claridge, the chief executive of Potatoes New Zealand, explained the severity of the situation: “You can go for a week without politics, but try going for a week without potatoes.”

Here are the week’s stories.

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