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Egg producer Hillandale Farms accused of gouging consumers during coronavirus pandemic

New York authorities are accusing one of the largest U.S. egg producers of jacking up prices as consumer demand surged amid the coronavirus pandemic this spring. 

The state's attorney general, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Hillandale Farms alleging the Pennsylvania company raked in $4 million by illegally gouging shoppers on egg sales. Hillandale doubled, tripled and even quadrupled prices on eggs sold to commissary stores at West Point and U.S. military bases, as well as at Stop & Shop, BJ's Wholesale Club, Associated Supermarkets and other major retailers, the suit claims.

"As this pandemic ravaged our country, Hillandale exploited hardworking New Yorkers to line its own pockets," James said in a statement announcing the suit. "In less than two months, Hillandale made millions by cheating our most vulnerable communities and our service members; actions that are both unlawful and truly rotten."

Between January and early March, Hillandale was charging buyers between 59 cents and $1.10 for a dozen eggs. But the company hiked the price to $1.49 on March 15 — two days after the U.S. declared a national emergency due to the virus — and a high of $2.93 a dozen by the end of the month, according to the suit. Prices did not return to their pre-pandemic levels until early May, James alleges.The suit also accuses Hillandale of coordinating with commodity market research firm Urner Barry to justify the price increases. 

Hillandale denied the allegations, stating that it is "shocked and dismayed" to learn of the lawsuit.

"Our approach to pricing has been consistent for decades, and without complaint, whether that has led to profit or losses, and the last several months have been no exception," the company, which employs 1,500 people, said in a statement. "We look to a third-party company, Urner Barry, which specializes in the timely, accurate and unbiased reporting of market news and quotations throughout the food industry."

While not addressing the allegations directly, Urner Barry defended its standing as "an independent, third-party source" in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch on Wednesday. "Success at Urner Barry is not defined by the performance of a market but rather that the prices listed in our coverage are an accurate indication of trading values for the markets they represent," the company said.

Egg prices soared across the U.S. in March and April as the coronavirus was spreading and as some consumers began hoarding the food item, along with necessities like toilet paper and sanitizer.  

Texas prosecutors in April filed suit against Cal-Maine Foods of boosting egg prices by 300%.

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