With the soaring costs of eggs tripling in the month of March, Chester’s Thriftway in John Day fended off complaints of price gouging and were officially cleared by the Oregon Department of Justice April 7.
“It is clear you have not used the COVID virus emergency as a cause to price gouge on the price of eggs,” said Dale Geiger with Oregon DOJ in an email shared on the grocery store’s Facebook page.
Longtime Operations Manager Bill Wyllie, in the same post, said those with further questions can make an appointment by calling 541-575-2141 to discuss the pricing structure and details of the cost of eggs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said wholesale egg prices have tripled since the beginning of March. According to the same report from the USDA, many grocers are taking losses by not passing along the increase to their customers.
Wyllie said Chester’s was among those grocers last month, after their egg supplier requested a retraction on an advertisement because they could not honor the published sale of two dozen eggs for $4.
Price gouging, according to the DOJ website, is the sale of essential consumer goods or services at an “unconscionably excessive price” after the governor declares that an abnormal disruption of the market exists. The law covers retail outlets, merchants and wholesalers that sell essential consumer goods, such as food, water, fuel, medical supplies and hotel rooms. Whether a product or service is essential depends on the nature of the emergency. Hand soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper are considered items that protect the safety, health and welfare of the public during the COVID-19 emergency.
The DOJ deems an “unconscionably excessive price” as 15% or more higher than either the price the merchant sold the same item for immediately before the market disruption commenced, or the price the same or similar goods sold for in or near the area covered by the declaration immediately before the market disruption commenced.
The Oregon Capital Bureau reported that, on a conference call this week, Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblaum spoke with members of the AARP, who received 500 complaints on its price-gouging hotline.
Responding to the surge in price gouging, the Oregon Department of Justice has sent more than 20 cease-and-desist letters to businesses, ordering them to reduce their prices on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, face masks or other essentials. Rosenblum said most businesses complied after learning price gouging was illegal.
The DOJ’s report, which listed pricing from multiple stores, invoices from Chester’s and a pricing index from the USDA that showed the price of eggs tripled in March, said Chester’s had not price gouged the cost of eggs.
As demand for eggs moved from the restaurant business and institutional sectors to retail and grocery, egg producers have scrambled to meet the spike in demand as consumers stocked up for the coronavirus stay-at-home orders and the Easter holiday.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation,” Oakdell Farms president and co-owner Cliff Lillywhite, said in a March 30 interview with EO Media Group. “Recently we’ve had to do some things we’ve never had to do to allocate product based on availability amid exceptional demand.”
Lillywhite’s company operates egg farms in Pasco, Washington, Franklin, Idaho, and Lewiston, Utah, under the Oakdell and Ritewood banners. He said on the company website that many stores “are now getting back to their normal supply of eggs, but some shortages may still occur for a short period of time. … We are doing our best to quickly resolve this issue to better meet your needs.”
With the restaurant industry basically shut down on the state and national level, most meals are eaten at home, causing additional demand at grocery stores.
Temporary closures of restaurants — Squeeze-In Restaurant & Deck, 1188 Brewing Company and Grubsteak Mining Company Bar & Grill in John Day and the Oxbow Restaurant and Saloon in Prairie City — are putting more demand on local retail stores.
Lillywhite told EO Media Group that he advised retail clients their egg sales could be 20-25% higher until schools reopen and social distancing is no longer an issue.
“We are aware some Americans have faced empty store shelves and egg cases early in the outbreak, and we understand these concerns,” United Egg Producers President and CEO Chad Gregory said in a statement. “UEP’s farmer-members are committed to producing a consistent supply of eggs and are partnering with their customers to restock egg cases across the U.S.”
Wyllie said people need to consider that the supply of eggs are dependent upon how many eggs a hen lays.
Lillywhite said a hen lays an average of an egg per day, and they do not start producing until they are 22 to 24 weeks old.
Brad Carlson of the Capital Press contributed to this story.