For every new egg-laying hen born into today’s factory farming system, a male chick is killed — or “culled.” As many as 300 million chicks are killed in the United States every year, and more than 6 billion total are killed around the world.
It’s a disturbing and wasteful practice, and it has its roots in the warped economics of chicken production.
Most chicken meat comes from “broiler” chickens, bred to grow unnaturally big and fast. That is not the case with egg-laying hens, which have been bred to put all their energy toward laying. Consequently, when their egg output begins to wane, they have so little meat on them that they often don’t enter the human food supply and are instead used as pet food, feed for other factory-farmed animals, or simply “landfilled.” This is why egg producers cull male chicks: The males from the leaner breeds used in egg production cost more to feed and house than they would ever sell for as meat, so they’re economically useless to the industry.
Animal welfare activists have been lobbying against male chick culling for decades, chronicling cute and fuzzy day-old chicks who are gassed or macerated. The thing is, the industry doesn’t like the practice either — it’s inefficient and wasteful, even before accounting for the bad PR. The alternative would be to develop in-ovo sexing technology — technology that can determine the sex of a chicken before it hatches — stopping the incubation process for males before they even come out of their shells and eliminating the need for a wasteful culling operation.
In 2016, the United Egg Producers (UEP), a lobbying group for the egg industry, announced that it was hoping to fund the development of such technology and committed to ending male chick culling by 2020.
It was big news. Vox even referred to it as “the best news for America’s animals in decades.” But 2020 came and went, and chick culling continues unabated.
In July 2020, the UEP put out a statement saying it was still looking for “an economically feasible, commercially viable alternative to the practice of male chick culling at hatcheries.” It added, “We believe this goal is achievable with time and research,” but it didn’t offer a new timeline for the goal or elaborate on what issues still had to be worked out.
USPoultry — an umbrella organization representing various egg and poultry trade groups, including the UEP — has put roughly $100,000 toward research grants for startups and researchers looking to end chick culling. Other than that, the egg industry has not made any additional support for this project public, and the UEP would not answer questions outside of its statements.
Meanwhile, in Europe, two companies are already sexing chicks in their shells and selling limited quantities of no-cull eggs in grocery stores in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other European countries. So what’s taking the United States so long?
The problem is the technology
There are roughly 336 million laying hens in the United States. For in-ovo sexing to stop the bulk of male chick culling, it likely would need to be able to sex close to a billion eggs per year (taking into account unfertilized eggs and male chicks).
But despite the fact that people have been speaking out about it for decades, there still isn’t a viable way to humanely avoid chick culling at the scale the industry requires.
The Humane League (THL), a nonprofit that lobbies corporations to make animal welfare changes, was involved in getting the UEP to promise an end to chick culling back in 2016. David Coman-Hidy, THL’s president, says that he doesn’t see any evidence that the US egg industry is dragging its feet.
However, he does acknowledge there’s certainly a history of the agriculture industry saying better animal welfare — like phasing out the use of battery cages in the egg industry or gestation crates in the pork industry — wouldn’t be commercially viable until consumers and corporations demanded it.
“The difference here is that this is actually a technological problem,” Coman-Hidy says. “We don’t need to develop the technology of ‘don’t put hens in battery cages.’ That technology exists. It’s called a barn. But sexing these eggs at a really young age is complicated.”
To see just how complicated it is, it helps to understand how the technologies already in use in Europe work and why their shortcomings make them a nonstarter for US egg producers and animal welfare activists.
The European companies selling no-cull eggs in local supermarkets — Agri Advanced Technologies (Agri-AT) and Respeggt GmbH — use different approaches to address the same problem.
Respeggt-branded eggs use an endocrinological gender identification technology that’s somewhat similar to a human pregnancy test. Eight to 10 days after incubation, a machine takes a sample of liquid from each fertilized egg and looks for the presence of a female hormone by looking for a color-changing reaction. Male eggs are then used for animal feed and the females continue toward hatching.
All the eggs produced by hens sexed with this technology are sold under the Respeggt brand, free from chick culling. It can currently test one egg per second or at most 31.5 million eggs per year (if run continuously). According to Kristin Höller, Respeggt’s head of business development and global affairs, by the time the cost is passed on to consumers, they’ve seen an increase of about 1 to 2 cents per egg. They have not yet tried to sell the technology to the US egg industry but, even if they did, the volume it can handle is currently too low for this technology to be used to get rid of chick culling across the board.
The other company, Agri-AT, tests eggs using hyperspectral measurement that essentially scans the colors inside the egg. This method is much faster than Respeggt’s: Its machine can sex 20,000 eggs per hour or at most 175.2 million a year (if run continuously). But a big drawback is that it only works on brown-egg-laying chicken breeds where male and female chicks are different colors when they hatch. Since most egg-laying hens in the US only lay white eggs, Agri-AT’s technology can’t be used at scale here.
Jörg Hurlin, managing director at Agri-AT, said that they don’t yet know how much their technology would cost the consumer, though it will certainly add to the cost of eggs.
One issue that complicates these efforts is the difficult-to-answer question of when an embryo becomes a chick. Some researchers say day seven is when chick embryos can begin to experience pain. If that’s right, sexing the eggs eight to 10 days after incubation as Respeggt does, and 14 days as Agri-AT does, may still end up inflicting pain on the embryo, which could be trading one animal welfare problem — culling — for another. (However, Agri-AT did develop another machine they call “STUNNY” that uses electricity to anesthetize the eggs, eliminating any potential pain in stopping their development.)
The embryo problem is one that the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a US-based agricultural research organization, is attempting to address. FFAR is sponsoring something called the Egg-Tech prize, which will award up to $6 million to researchers producing promising methods of ending chick culling. The group is hoping for a technology that can be used at scale and implemented before day eight of incubation, at which point there’s evidence the chicks experience sensation.
There’s one other technological solution being pursued that’s worth noting here. At the University of Georgia, Kristen Navara has been researching the potential of finding a way to control and change the sex of chicks before they even hatch.
In chickens, the hen controls whether the resulting chick is male or female. Using hormonal treatments, Navara can change the sex of an egg. Because the Food and Drug Administration bans the poultry industry from using hormones, Navara explains, the hope is that knowing what pathways those hormones operate on might allow her to find and manipulate a gene that could, for example, permanently make all laying-breed chicks female.
If it works, it could be an even more economical option than in-ovo sexing. Not only would chick culling end but hatcheries wouldn’t “lose” half of all fertilized eggs that would have hatched into males.
All in all, the picture that’s emerging on egg-culling is one of promising innovation — and a recognition that progress has been much too slow.
Another way to end chick culling: Raise other chicken breeds
In-ovo sexing might be the solution to end chick culling that’s gotten the most attention from the egg industry, but it’s not the only one. Hatcheries could also go back to how chickens were bred pre-factory farming — which would do away with culling, period.
Until the early 1900s, farmers didn’t worry too much over whether their chickens were male or female. Hens were raised as egg layers while the roosters were the first ones to become Sunday dinner. Some breeds were slightly more suited to one purpose over the other, but did both reasonably well.
So-called “dual-production” breeds like the Rhode Island Red could lay 250-300 eggs per year (a huge improvement over the average chicken’s 80 eggs) and after five months the 6- to 8-pound males could be sold for meat. At the beginning of the 20th century, the birds were considered a marvel.
Then the poultry industry changed. Up through the 1930s, raising chickens tended to happen on small farms mostly run by women. What we have now would be unrecognizable to those farmers: highly specialized and mechanized factory-style farms with chicken breeds that do one thing or the other very well.
Today, broiler chickens — the ones raised for meat — are slaughtered at just seven weeks old, having already reached 6.5 pounds; high-production egg layers produce about 300 eggs each per year. This has made poultry production extremely efficient, but at the cost of animal welfare. Factory-farmed meat chickens suffer chronic pain and have a lot of joint and movement problems, while most egg layers live out their lives in small cages, are unable to express natural behaviors like nesting, and can suffer from bone weakness and breakage.
“The [egg industry’s] hope is to get a cheap sexing alternative and continue on this crazy route of having two completely different birds for different purposes,” says Mahi Klosterhalfen, CEO of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, which focuses on farm animal welfare issues in Germany. While he, too, wants to see the end of chick culling, Klosterhalfen would rather see farmers return to the dual-purpose breeds of the past.
“The laying hens wouldn’t have such extreme numbers of eggs they have to lay and broilers wouldn’t grow so fast they can’t move around after a couple of weeks,” he says.
This would make all chicken products considerably more expensive than they are today (chicken is really cheap, though, so even if it got more expensive it still likely wouldn’t be pricier than even the least expensive cuts of beef or pork).
But if a return to a pastoral era of raising chickens seems implausible, the practice of male chick culling continues to be a moral problem. Six billion chicks gassed or macerated a year is a lot.
And for all its horribleness, culling has received surprisingly little public attention. When the UEP announced in 2016 they were going to stop the practice, consumers were shocked to hear that the practice existed at all. “We started getting calls from reporters immediately asking if it was true that [the egg industry] did this,” the Humane League’s Coman-Hidy says. “It’s one of the most grotesque corners of factory farming.”
Between the financial motivation and the specter of public attention turning to this issue again, he believes in-ovo sexing will happen as soon as technically possible. He may be right. But while the technology to fix the problem may be coming soon, the broader questions that chick culling raises — what we’re willing to do to animals in the name of low prices; what we’re willing to do to animals, period — still loom before us.
Tove K. Danovich is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Ringer, Eater, and the New York Times, among other outlets.