WASHINGTON – In an effort to address a shortage of shell eggs created by a November outbreak of the H5N6 strain of avian influenza in South Korea and the subsequent cull of about 30 million birds, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) has negotiated an official bilateral veterinary agreement that will allow the US to begin exporting shell eggs and some types of processed egg products to that market for the first time. The agreement is timely as demand for eggs in South Korea is expected to spike with the upcoming Lunar New Year in late January.
There is no word yet on an effective date for shipments to begin, but Korea also waived all duties on US egg products through June 2017 in an effort to facilitate shipments.
Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council (USAPEEC), said US shell egg producers are anxious to help South Korea with the country’s shortage of eggs, especially given the surplus of eggs in the United States. For example, October production of 7,506 million table eggs was the highest for any month since February 2015, two months before laying hen numbers began declining sharply because of an outbreak of avian influenza last year, according to the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Chickens and Eggs report. October 2016 egg production was up 11 percent from October 2015, when flocks were being replenished, and was up 1 percent from October 2014, prior to the AI outbreak.
The US had never shipped shell eggs to South Korea which is self-sufficient in egg production and has high egg consumption. But the country has culled more than 30 million birds since an outbreak of H5N6 gained momentum in November 2016.
“They’re in a very desperate situation, in fact a situation similar to what we in a year-and-a-half ago,” Sumner said. “So, we certainly can feel their pain and understand their situation. We’re only too happy to try an accommodate them.”
In addition to shell eggs, South Korea is experiencing a shortage of liquid eggs, and the new agreement includes those products, Sumner said. The US has shipped dried egg products to South Korea, but not shell eggs or liquid eggs.
Sumner added that the US can have product in South Korea within three to four weeks by container shipment. “If need be, we can have it there sooner than that by air,” he said. The Korean government has offered to help subsidize some of the transportation costs.
“There will be billions of dozens of eggs shipped,” he said.
Recalling market conditions in the US during the AI outbreak, Sumner said the US imported eggs from Europe, Mexico and other countries. The lessons learned by the US egg industry during that crisis can help South Korea.
“One of our concerns is this: A lot of food manufacturers, food processors couldn’t get egg products for their processing at any cost. So, they were forced to reformulate their products” such as food mixes, bakery mixes, Sumner explained. “Even mayonnaise was impacted. So the manufacturers were scrambling trying to find alternative products to use and that was very costly. It resulted in an inferior product.
“And then as soon as eggs became available, most of those companies had switched back to eggs, which also was problematic and expensive for them,” he continued. If we can get this processed egg product to Korea in time, it will prevent them from undergoing a similar situation.”
Sumner noted that the egg shortage in South Korea demonstrates the importance of establishing trade agreements before a crisis hits. “Unfortunately, we didn’t previously have a trade agreement, so once demand became apparent our governments had to work to establish an agreement, which took two to three weeks,” he added. “Those were two or three precious weeks where we could probably have had eggs there already. Sometimes, timing is everything.”