Eggs are important to healthcare, and not just for feeding patients: They're used to make vaccines too. That's why a looming shortage of the protein has vaccine makers and hospital foodservice directors on high alert.
The country's egg supply has been threatened by the latest outbreak of the bird flu, which has killed 48 million birds since early March in 15 states. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say the virus appears to be under control with no new outbreaks reported in the past three weeks, but business leaders aren't taking that for granted.
An egg shortage won't affect vaccine manufacturers because they use a different egg supply than that used for food consumption, a Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman said. Vaccines undergo extensive testing, and the FDA regularly inspects the facilities at which they're produced, she said.
But vaccine manufacturers, including Merck & Co., Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline still say they're monitoring the bird flu outbreak and increasing their biosecurity safeguards. Merck, for example, maintains its own chicken flocks that are continuously monitored, a spokeswoman said.
Hospital foodservice operators tend to use liquid-egg products rather than cracking individual eggs because of the volume of meals they serve. But liquid-egg manufacturers have been hit hard by the shortage, forcing hospitals to adjust their menus to ration the egg supply, said Julie Jones, director of nutrition services at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
“It's a very real issue, because some of the largest (manufacturing) facilities that have been hit are the ones that are very heavy in institutional foodservice,” said Jones, who is president-elect of the Association for Healthcare Foodservice, which represents self-operating foodservice directors and vendors.
The shortage has forced hospitals like Wexner to substitute a number of egg dishes with other choices, Jones said. It's also made it difficult to make other dishes that require eggs, like meatloaf, a hospital favorite.
OSU Wexner has prioritized its egg supply for use in patient meals over retail cafes, as has West Georgia Health System, a single-hospital system in LaGrange that joined WellStar Health System in May. Linda Mack, West Georgia Health's director of food and nutrition services, said it was important to the system to ensure that its patients, who have less flexibility than retail customers, have access to the nutritious food.
“Particularly in the long-term care population, the egg is such a big source of protein,” Mack said. “It's easily digestible, they can chew it and it has iron and other proteins in the yolk.”
But Mack cautioned that if the bird flu outbreak worsens, further affecting the poultry supply, the hospital may be forced to make even more difficult menu decisions. She said West Georgia, which is member of Premier's group-purchasing organization, has been assured by the GPO that it should have ample supplies.
"We continue to have regular discussions with egg suppliers to ensure quality products remain available and patient safety is adhered to," a spokesman at Irving, Texas-based Novation said.
Unidine Corp., which manages kitchens in more than 30 U.S. hospitals, said it is standing firm on its policy of using only pasteurized eggs and has adjusted menus to prepare for problems. “By continuing to place 'normal' orders but reducing our usage, we have generally stayed ahead of the shortages,” said Chris Stainton, Unidine's vice president of supply chain, in a statement.
Jones said GPOs have been able to protect contracted egg items from price spikes but items like shell eggs are priced from the commodity market. The Association for Healthcare Foodservice estimated their current average case price for 15 dozen shell eggs is $37.00 whereas the usual price per case was about $18.00.
To prevent a possible return of the virus in the fall, USDA officials say they've increased monitoring of wild birds and are working with industry groups on improving biosecurity safeguards. Meanwhile, work on a veterinary vaccine continues.