Unrelenting bird flu spread sparks egg shortages in South Korea

SEOUL (Bloomberg) – A mom-and-pop bakery in South Korea’s capital is bustling even during the pandemic as customers look to buy its famous pecan pie or cheese tart. But the owners of the store are worried because they’re running out of a key ingredient: eggs.

“We go on a daily hunt to find as many eggs as possible despite the price surge because we can’t bake anything without eggs,” said Kim Jeong-uk, who’s been helping his wife run the store since its opening three years ago.

“We need about 150 eggs a day and we’re having trouble getting the amount we need.”

South Korea’s poultry industry has been ripped by an outbreak of the highly contagious H5N8 strain of avian influenza that led to the culling of more than 25 million birds across the country since October.

Egg prices have soared and are nudging up inflation, with food prices in January climbing faster than the previous two years despite the nation’s tight Covid-19 social distancing rules.

Given the scale of culling, South Korea is among the worst hit in the world, but it’s not alone in its struggles. New infections of H5N8 and H5N1 have been found in at least a dozen countries in Europe, where more than 3.5 million birds have died, including ducks used for France’s famed foie gras. India, the second-biggest egg producer, reported cases in 13 states and territories.

“The influenza is spreading sporadically this time, compared to what we saw in 2016-17, meaning it’s harder for authorities to do epidemiological investigations,” said Lee Hyungwoo, a researcher at Korea Rural Economics Institute.

He sees prices easing after Lunar New Year holidays as the number of egg-laying hens culled – 18 per cent of the total – is lower than previous years.

Eggs sold by South Korean farmers almost doubled from year-ago levels to about 1,924 won (S$2.30) for 10 extra-large ones. Retail prices rose 43 per cent to 2,477 won, according to the agriculture ministry. Chicken, which a South Korean person consumes more of than a Japanese or Chinese, gained 16 per cent.

Foreign supply

To cool prices ahead of the Lunar New Year, when consumption peaks as eggs are used in many traditional dishes such as Korean pancakes, the government has removed import tariffs on fresh eggs and egg products through June 30. It’s also bringing in more than 20 million eggs from the US by Feb 10 to bolster supply.

Prices will stabilise from the end of this month as restaurants and retail shops start to replace local eggs with imported supply, the agriculture ministry said.

While that may help bakery owner Kim, who’s willing to use imported eggs as long as the quality remains the same, it’s not an option for housewife Lee Hyunsil, at least for now. The 61-year-old retired teacher from the small town of Gunsan, a city south of Seoul, has became increasingly picky about what she puts on the dinner table after her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

With eggs becoming one of the main sources of protein for her husband who can’t have meat in his diet, the recent price rally has been a burden, she said.

“I wouldn’t mind buying imported eggs if it weren’t for my husband’s condition,” said Lee, who’s been purchasing organically grown food since the diagnosis. “I’m just hoping prices won’t go out of control to a point where I have to switch to imported eggs.”

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