Saving the baby chicks: Will France and Germany succeed where the US did not?

Coller Foundation Insights  — 

In July 2021 the French Government announced plans to ban the culling of day-old chicks by the egg industry, shortly after a similar ban was passed into law in Germany in May of the same year.

Now, with both laws coming into effect in January of 2022, the EU’s two largest economies have set their sights on persuading the rest of the block to follow suit. To those keenly following this particular topic however, this latest push from the heart of the EU rings with a note of familiarity. This may be because five years earlier in 2016 the United Egg Producers (UEP) of the USA made a very similar commitment to end the practice by 2020 – a change which over a year after the deadline is still yet to materialise. 

This being the case, now seems like an appropriate time to take a dive into the finer points of this issue, and explore some of the background, key ideas, and ongoing roadblocks to the ending of this reprehensible, yet still routine practice. 

Chick Culling: What It Is, and Why It Is Done?

In modern meat and dairy production, animals are bred for maximum payoff. In the case of meat production this means using animals which grow faster, and generate more meat. In the case of eggs meanwhile, this means choosing birds which can generate the maximum number of eggs in a given timeframe. This approach has led to a situation in which the much heavier chickens bred for meat production (‘Broiler Chickens’), and the leaner ones reared to lay eggs (‘Egg-Laying Hens’), have become almost completely different birds. 

By doing this the industry ensures maximum efficiency, and thereby lower prices. It also, however, means that the males in the latter species, unable to generate meat or lay eggs, are reduced to an economically valueless byproduct of the production process. As a result of this, every year an estimated 7 billion day-old male chicks are killed worldwide as a routine part of industrial egg production, typically by gassing, shredding, or crushing them en masse.

‘In-Ovo Sexing’ – A Work in Progress

In 2016, faced with mounting pressure from campaign groups, the United Egg Manufactures of the USA announced they had found another way. The plan was to invest in the development of emerging technologies around what is known as ‘in-ovo sexing’, whereby the gender of an un-hatched egg can be predetermined, allowing for it to be destroyed before it hatches. The UEP planned to have transitioned to this new approach by 2020, effectively ending chick-culling in the US. A year after that deadline however, they are still yet to make the shift.

The primary reason given for this failure was, quite simply, that the technology to achieve this on a large scale was not developed in time, with significant issues making existing methods work at the necessary speed and scale for the US egg industry. For renewed efforts to end the practice in the EU, this failure to make in-ovo sexing work on a large scale is undoubtedly a cause for concern, with the plans of France and Germany also relying heavily on an ability to make existing techniques scalable.

There are reasons why in-ovo sexing is more likely to work in Europe. Firstly, unlike in the US, the technology has already been put into action and proven profitable in France and Germany, by several small companies looking to lead the charge on ethical egg-production. One of the existing methods, which scans the colours inside the egg, is also more effective with European-style brown eggs, than with American white eggs. Questions still remain however. These technologies have not been tested on a grand scale, and there is even evidence to suggest that destroying an egg prior to its hatching may not actually spare the chick any pain

Routes to Change: Longterm Ambitions vs. Short Term Gains

There is, of course, an alternative route to ending chick culling, by embracing a different way of farming altogether. Contemporary industrial agriculture has brought us to a point at which short-term efficiency and cost is all too often valued over other longer-term factors, from human health, to sustainability and the environment, to animal welfare issues. In the case of chicken farming, it has brought us to a point where the birds used for differing purposes are so specialised that they are useless for anything else. Doing away with this model and returning to the use of so-called dual-purpose birds, equally able to lay eggs and generate meat, would end chick culling for good with no need for in-ovo sexing.

Longterm ambitions however, should not stand in the way of short-term positive changes. If the technology can be developed and rolled out fast enough, this latest push from France and Germany, and the domino effect that might follow, will make a significant, positive difference.

Will France and Germany end chick culling for good? Will others, including the US, follow suit? One way or another, time will tell.