A thaw has begun that may soon allow Canadian elk velvet producers to sell to South Korea after being frozen out of the lucrative market for 14 years.
Canadian elk officials were asked during a recent trade mission to Korea to sign a memorandum of understanding to work on reopening trade between the two countries.
“That news was beyond any expectation I would of ever had,” said Connie Seutter, director of the Canadian Cervid Alliance and chair of the Alberta Elk Commission.
“I didn’t have any knowledge, or expectation or suspicion that this would happen when we left for Korea. This caught me off guard. This is fantastic.”
Korea closed its door to Canadian elk exports in December 2000 after an elk exported from Canada later tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
The halcyon days of Canadian producers receiving $120 a pound for elk velvet antler ended. Prices plummeted to $10 a lb. and hundreds of producers left the industry.
Elk producers have lobbied Canadian officials over the years to help reopen the border to Korea, but Korean officials weren’t interested in Canadian elk antler.
A change in leadership within the Korean elk association and a shortage of elk velvet antler seems to have softened their position, said Seutter.
“The change has come within their industry, and now they are lobbying their government,” she said.
“We have always been lobbying our government and now there is someone lobbying their government.”
Seutter met with members of the pharmaceutical industry during the trade mission, which was led by international trade minister Ed Fast, but more importantly, she also met with the influential Korean Deer Breeders Association.
“One of the fantastic, good news stories that came out of the trade mission was the president of the Korean Deer Breeders Association asked us if we were willing to sign a memorandum of understanding between the two industries to work together to get the borders reopened,” she said.
“They are completely on board to work forward with this memorandum of understanding.”
Korean elk producer Yu-Hwang Chung, president of the Korean Deer Breeders Association, will be at the Alberta Elk Commission’s convention in March to continue the discussion.
Seutter said a basic framework of the memorandum of understanding has already been drafted.
Koreans want to access Canadian science and technology regarding CWD as well as learn best farm practices to produce faster growing antler, develop better herd management and improve feeding programs.
“They want a knowledge exchange, and we are looking for them to lobby the government to allow our green velvet antler,” she said.
“They have a big market inside their own country.”
A reopened border would give Canadian elk producers’ direct access to their main elk velvet antler customer. All elk velvet is now sold to buyers in Hong Kong, who then resell it around the world.
Seutter said the latest case of CWD in a farmed Alberta elk was not discussed, but there were discussions on mandatory testing for CWD, existing control programs and CWD research projects.
More than 700 elk farms operate in Canada, with most of the production in Saskatchewan and Alberta.