SEOUL • In a packed stall in one of Seoul's traditional eateries, patrons feast on egg-rich Korean pancakes washed down with beer.
Despite the booming business, restaurant owner Kim Kang Ock looks on in dismay.
"Soaring egg prices are driving me crazy as it's about to kill my business," says the middle-aged South Korean street-food vendor .
A few blocks down the road, 44-year-old Ms Jeon Min Jeong stands in the middle of a discount supermarket, staring at a shelf stacked full of eggs while debating whether she can afford them.
The housewife usually buys 150 eggs a week to feed her family of four, including a fitness-fanatic husband who relies on the protein-rich foodstuff.
Now she fears an eggless Chinese New Year awaits them.
The two ladies are among millions of South Koreans reeling from the spread of bird flu, which has gripped the nation in its most serious outbreak.
The country raised its threat level to its highest ever and has culled more than 26 million birds in farms across the land, making it one of the worst-affected in the world.
The average price of eggs sold by South Korean farmers soared 50 per cent to 1,551 won (S$1.85) for 10 standard-sized eggs in December from a year earlier, while the average retail price rose 21.4 per cent to 2,207 won, according to the Korea Rural Economics Institute.
To ease the price hike, the government in Seoul has removed tariffs on 98,600 tonnes of imported eggs and egg products for the first half of this year.
Amid the price rise, 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, US government and industry officials said last Friday.
The US 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.
Mr 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 US shell eggs it imposed when the US grappled with its own bout of bird flu in 2015, according to the USDA.
"I think there will be a lot of eggs on the way to Korea immediately," Mr Sumner said. "It'll be boatloads." He declined to give a dollar estimate.
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.