Poultry keepers in the United States and Canada are in a race against the clock to prevent mass killing of baby chick embryos. The eggs in question are those of the brown-egg-laying commercial breed known as White Leghorn. As the seasons change and the eggs are no longer fertilized, egg farmers rely on incubators to keep the eggs from hatching and potentially killing their chicks. But after multiple attempts by US and Canadian officials to solve the problem, the egg industry continues to be plagued by deaths of chicks that hatch prematurely.

The debate about whether factory farms should be using “gestation crates” to confine chickens, in which their legs are tied out, continues to rage in the news. As it turns out, those cages are not so different from the ones used on egg-laying hens, in which the birds are packed together so tightly that they can’t move. Fortunately, there are some new strategies being developed that will allow chickens to be free—at least for a time—and still be able to reside on a farm.

The mass killing of baby chicks continues unabated in the poultry sector of China, which is the world’s largest poultry and egg producer. According to the latest Global Food Trend Report released by the International Food Information Council Foundation, this has been going on for over a decade. The report estimates that more than 300 million baby chicks are killed each year for meat, breeding, and feather production. Most of these chicks are culled from the rearing operations of poultry farms.

At a hatchery in the Netherlands that supplies eggs to the egg industry, a machine sticks needles into rows of chicken eggs running on a conveyor belt. A drop of liquid is removed from each egg and the holes in the shell are filled with biodegradable glue. The fluid is quickly analyzed to determine whether it is a man or a woman.

The male eggs are discarded. The females incubate and hatch the chicks.

Not so long ago, it was impossible to determine the sex of the chicken in the egg. As a result, about six billion newly-hatched male chicks die each year worldwide, according to the U.S. government-funded Food and Agriculture Research Foundation. Male chicks are useless to hatcheries because they do not lay eggs and do not gain weight as quickly as chicks raised for slaughter. Some chickens are still ground alive by rotating knives in grinders, others are exposed to carbon dioxide.

A machine developed by the Dutch company In Ovo inserts needles into rows of eggs, sucks a drop of liquid from each egg, and then seals the holes with glue. The fluid is analyzed to determine the sex.

Photo:

Kata Gaible for the Wall Street Journal

Workers sort eggs with male and female embryos.

Photo:

Kata Gaible for the Wall Street Journal

A new technology should stop the killing by determining the sex of a chick before it hatches. There is growing concern in some Western countries about the fate of male chicks, and governments in Germany and elsewhere are taking steps to stop or limit the practice. Some retailers are trying to get ahead of this problem by insisting that their suppliers use technology that allows them to grade eggs by gender. So far, the use of new methods has been limited because they can be expensive or only work with eggs from certain types of hens.

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We are a bit adrift, says Wouter Bruins, director of In Ovo BV, the Dutch company that developed the sexing device used in hatchery Het Anker BV in the Netherlands. An initial version of the machine can produce about 40,000 eggs a week, Bruins said, while a more efficient iteration, which is in the testing phase, can produce five times as many eggs. Hatchery, the company’s first customer, put the machine into commercial production in November.

Jan Wroegindewij, director of Het Anker, explains that he works with in ovo technology because the Dutch government has asked hatchery owners to find an alternative to slaughtering male chicks. In Ovo’s machine produces eggs quickly, but it is also inefficient: It takes 30 to 40% more eggs to produce the same number of female chicks, Wroegindeway said, in part because the machine inaccurately determines the sex of some eggs and rejects some female chicks. His customers have agreed to compensate him for the increased cost of using the In Ovo machine, as they can sell the eggs from the resulting chicks to retailers at higher prices. No hatchery can afford these much higher costs alone, he says.

According to Bruins, In Ovo has improved its performance and continues to reduce the percentage of lost eggs.

Wouter Bruins, director of In Ovo, explains that his first machine can produce about 40,000 eggs a week, while the version currently being tested can produce five times that.

Photo:

Kata Gaible for the Wall Street Journal

Carrefour SA,

a French grocery chain, began selling aseptic eggs last year from a supplier using a different technology. The method of sexing eggs in the hatchery consists of exposing the eggs from below and taking photographs to distinguish males from females by the color of their feathers. A pack of six eggs from hens defined this way costs about $2.30, nearly 10 percent more than the price of standard eggs. The company plans to expand the process to about 40 million eggs a year starting this spring, hoping some consumers will pay more to support the reduction in the number of chicks killed.

The Food and Agriculture Research Foundation, which created the 2019 Egg Technology Award for research to end the slaughter of male chickens, has awarded millions of dollars in grants. It’s like a space race. What people are using here is really advanced technology that you don’t often see in agriculture, says Timothy Kurth, head of the science program.

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Several researchers are trying to determine the differences between the gases emitted by male and female eggs, including Professor Abdennur Abbas of the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota, using machine learning. SensIT Ventures Inc, a Davis, California-based company, is developing a chemical sensor chip that can detect minute differences in gas composition to determine the sex of an embryo.

Israeli company eggXYt Ltd. uses genetic modification to make male embryos glow when exposed to certain types of light. Only male chicks receive the modified gene, while females remain unchanged, according to the company, which says it is working to commercialize the technology. If you can make it genetically detectable and develop a technology that picks up the signal, the problem is solved, says CEO Yehuda Elram.

His company motto: Count your chicks before they hatch.

Knowing about the future of everything

The elimination of male chicken slaughter would be the latest change in an industry that has been under pressure for decades from animal rights groups and some consumers to improve the treatment of chickens on farms. The animals are often kept in cages and subjected to procedures such as beak trimming with hot knives to reduce the damage they cause when they peck their neighbors. In recent years, food companies and grocery chains have begun to sell more eggs from non-cage hens, and some offer eggs from hens with intact beaks.

Rewe Markt GmbH, Germany’s largest food retailer with more than 3,700 stores, said in February that it would try to source the eggs it offers under its brands by the end of the year from hatcheries that do not kill male chicks. On Friday, the German government passed a law banning the slaughter of day-old chicks, making Germany the first country in the world to ban the practice. Germany is now a pioneer worldwide, said a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture.

To be widely used, the technology must be able to excrete eggs quickly and cheaply without significant egg loss. The industry will need time to appreciate the new technologies. The EggXYt gene editing method requires regulatory approval.

The Anchor has been using In Ovo technology since November.

Photo:

Kata Gaible for the Wall Street Journal

To be widely disseminated, the technologies must allow for rapid and inexpensive separation of oocytes without significant loss of oocytes.

Photo:

Kata Gaible for the Wall Street Journal

In the United States, the United Egg Producers, which represents 90 percent of the country’s egg production, said in March that it will also look for alternatives to slaughtering chickens. There are no scalable methods yet that meet US food safety and ethical standards.

For example, Carrefour’s color analysis method only works on eggs from hens with brown feathers, while most laying hens in the United States have white feathers. The group said it was wary of methods such as the In Ovo method, in which the eggshell is destroyed, because of the possibility of introducing diseases and disrupting the development of the embryo, but said it had no experience with this technology.

Bruins says chickens born from in eggs are healthy and farmers are happy with them.

Kurt says his organization’s funding is aimed at finding a solution that avoids some of the limitations of current sex determination methods. Our approach is all or nothing, he said, adding: We’re determined to get that gold.

These female chicks were reared from eggs analyzed using the in ovo technique.

Photo:

In Ovo.

Email John Emont at [email protected]

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