U.S. eggs crack Korean market as Seoul fights worst bird flu outbreak

* S.Korea expects to import 25 mln eggs by week’s end

* Egg prices have rocketed 70 pct since bird flu hit

* New hens won’t start producing till H2 2017

SEOUL, Jan 23 (Reuters) - U.S. white-shelled eggs landed on South Korean supermarket shelves beside local brown-shelled eggs on Monday as the country scrambled to boost imports to relieve a shortage amid its worst-ever bird flu outbreak.

Some 6 million eggs, mainly from the United States, are set to hit the shelves this week as South Korea launched emergency import measures after egg prices shot up 70 percent ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday this weekend.

Thirty U.S. eggs cost 8,470 won ($7.27) at Lotte Mart, one of South Korea’s major discount stores, which began selling the imports on Monday.

That was down from the average retail price for local eggs of 9,285 won as of Jan. 20. Prices stood at around 5,438 won when the first bird flu case was confirmed in November, according to state-run Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Corp.

“U.S.-origin eggs are good, but I prefer to use Korean eggs because the Lunar New Year holiday is a Korean traditional holiday. Even if local eggs are more expensive, I would buy them,” said Park Hee-kil, a 64-year-old lady who was shopping at a Lotte Mart store in Seoul.

In the wake of the bird flu epidemic, Asia’s fourth-largest economy culled more than 32 million farm birds, or nearly a fifth of its poultry population, mostly egg-laying hens.

The country’s egg production is expected to decline 12.7 percent to 559,000 tonnes in 2017 from a year earlier, according to the state-run Korea Rural Economics Institute (KREI).

“Egg imports may be needed through the first half of this year,” said Ji Seon-U, a researcher at the state-run think tank, adding that the volume would depend on how soon egg prices and output stabilised.

The Korean government expected a total of 1,500 tonnes, or roughly 25 million eggs, to be imported mainly from the United States before the holiday season. That compared with a total of 1,856 tonnes of egg products worth about $12 million imported last year, according to customs office data.

As of Sunday, 444 tonnes of shell eggs and 217 tonnes of egg products had been shipped to Korea since Jan.5, according to the agriculture ministry.

The ministry also plans to import a total of 200,000 baby chickens and parent stock for egg-laying hens from five bird flu-free countries, including the United States, Australia and Spain, to rebuild flocks.

“However we can’t start it right away because farms have to be virus-free for three months,” Ji said.

Given it takes at least six months for the offspring of parent stock birds to start laying eggs, the new hens would only start producing in the second half of this year, he said.

$1 = 1,165.4000 won Reporting by Jane Chung; Additional reporting by Choi Ji Won; Editing by Sonali Paul