US strikes deal to export eggs to bird flu-stricken South Korea

The United States has reached an agreement that is expected to open the door for its first-ever exports of shell eggs to South Korea, as the North Asian country labors through its worst outbreak of bird flu in history, U.S. government and industry officials said on Friday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been negotiating with South Korea's government to enable shipments ahead of peak egg demand in the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday season.

Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, a trade group, said the two sides reached an agreement over health statements. They were in talks after South Korea lifted a ban on imports of U.S. shell eggs that it imposed when the United States grappled with its own bout of bird flu in 2015, according to the USDA.

In South Korea, more than 30 million birds have been culled, most of them egg-laying hens, since the outbreak began in November. The losses have pushed up egg prices and created a shortfall.

"I think there will be a lot of eggs on the way to Korea immediately," Sumner said. "It'll be boatloads." He declined to give a dollar estimate.

South Korea's embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Different strains of bird flu, which can be spread to poultry by wild birds, have been detected across Asia and in Europe in recent weeks.

Some egg distributors in South Korea have said plans by Seoul to subsidize fresh egg imports were too little, too late to alleviate the shortage before the end-January holiday season.

A South Korean industry source with direct knowledge of the matter said one group of wholesalers had already reserved a Korean Air Lines charter flight, with a capacity of 100 tonnes, to bring fresh eggs from the United States around Jan. 16.

"They are very desperate for eggs," Sumner said.

In an email sent to members of the U.S. egg industry and provided to Reuters, the USDA said it had "completed discussions related to the export of shell eggs" with South Korea.

Agency representatives had no immediate comment beyond the notice.

U.S. egg exports would help farmers cope with an oversupply that is depressing prices.

"It's fantastic news," Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers, said about the agreement.

Korean "people need the eggs; we have a surplus," he said.