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Why billions of baby chickens are killed every year

It’s not for food! It’s much darker than that.

A newly hatched chick
This newly born chick had better hope it’s not male, because if it is the future is not looking good!
Peter Cross/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

A high court in Germany just ruled in favor of a wildly common, and very cruel, practice at poultry farms across the world: the mass culling of male chicks.

Killing male chicks, who are useless for egg farming purposes, en masse does not violate a German law prohibiting the infliction of pain or harm on animals without “Reasonable cause,” the Court ruled.

The standard practice at hatcheries that supply egg farms with hens is to kill almost all male chicks shortly after birth, usually by grinding them to death, as you can see in this horrifying video:

Hatcheries also sometimes use gassing. Some 4-6 billion male chicks are killed this way, every year, across the world.

The business logic behind chick culling is hard to get around. There’s no reason to keep the male chicks alive; they’re not useful for meat, as broiler chickens are bred in a totally different manner, to maximize size and quantity of meat. In the past, animal welfare advocates have proposed breeding “dual-purpose” chickens, which could be raised humanely for meat as well as serving as hens, to get around this, but got little traction.

But ending chick culling has become possible recently due to technology. In 2016, United Egg Producers, which represents the vast majority of egg producers in the US, announced it would replace culling with “in-ovo egg sexing.” This is a process that can determine the sex of chicks before they develop inside their egg. That enables egg producers to terminate the male eggs and potentially use them to help make vaccines or for pet food (most humans would presumably be grossed out by cooking fertilized eggs). Horrific infanticides will be replaced with humane, painless chicken abortions.

Germany has been at the forefront of this process. The first commercially available eggs using in-ovo selection were produced by SELEGGT GmbH, a German firm founded in 2017. That’s not the only company working on the technology — there’s also the Israeli eggXYt, the Dutch In Ovo, and Texas’s Ovabrite, among others — but they’ve had unusual buy-in from policymakers.

“Once the process is made available to all and the hatcheries have implemented the process, there will be no reason and no justification for chick culling,” Julia Klöckner, the German food and agriculture minister whose ministry helped fund Seleggt, told the press in December. Klöckner has called culling “intolerable from an ethical point of view.”

The German Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig, however, ruled that culling did not run afoul of a German law stating, “No-one shall inflict pain, suffering or harm on a pet without a reasonable cause.” That might change, the court suggested, if “alternative methods are introduced to determine the sex of the chick while it is still in the egg,” but the infancy of the current methods used mean that culling remains legal.

This is a real setback for chickens, but people who care about cruelty to chickens should not lose heart. The technological progress being made toward sex selection means that an outright ban on culling should be feasible soon, and the enthusiasm of mainstream politicians like Klöckner makes it likely in at least a German or European context. The US United Egg Producers, too, seem committed to the change.

Chicks may lost this battle, but they look set to win the war.

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