For years there has been heated debate surrounding the killing of male layer chicks immediately after hatching. But with techniques that could determine sex before hatch only available on a lab scale, the debate was going nowhere. Now that these methods are reaching maturity, the situation is changing.
The discussion in society about killing day-old chicks (DOCs) has heightened in Europe in recent years and this is why Switzerland last year banned the gasification and shredding of newborn male chicks, while France and Germany will follow suit by the end of next year. In October 2019, the agriculture ministers of Germany and France announced at the Franco-German Council of Ministers in Toulouse that the killing of male chicks would be banned by the end of 2021. At the time they wanted to mobilise players in the poultry industry to accelerate the development and implementation of sustainable alternatives to the culling of freshly hatched chicks. Pressure was also building in the Netherlands. 4 animal welfare organisations asked the Prime Minister to follow France and Switzerland’s lead and implement a Dutch ban in 2021.
Animal welfare organisations have been asking for a ban for years. Since the earliest stages in the development of procedures that could tell if a fertilised egg would produce a male or a female bird, they have been putting pressure on both the poultry industry and legislators. They even had a Plan B in the event that sex determination techniques were not successful, which involved the breeding of dual purpose birds or even raising male layers to slaughter age regardless of the expense.
It is our industry’s biggest ethical issue by far.” – Friedrich-Otto Ripke, chairman of ZDG.
The poultry sector, however, was moving at a totally different speed. With the culling of DOCs having been common practice for many years, not illegal in any state and with no viable alternative to hand, most of the sector was not really interested. Having said that, more visionary industry professionals could see in which direction the debate was moving. Realising that a technique would become available at some point in time, they embraced the idea and teamed up with research and development institutes at various universities. One of them, Friedrich-Otto Ripke, chairman of the Zentralverband der Deutschen Geflügelwirtschaft (ZDG), said in 2018, “We are fully aware we have to stop the culling of male layers as soon as possible. It is our industry’s biggest ethical issue by far.” Others, like the Seleggt consortium of Hatchtech, Rewe and the university of Leipzig took up the challenge and began developing a method, machine and marketing concept for producing brotherless laying hens.
It was the hands-on approach of Seleggt that resulted in the first big breakthrough. Using a prototype of their concept and with German retailer Rewe on board, they were the first to have commercially available consumption eggs on supermarket shelves, produced with no male layers hatched. After almost a decade of research, the first eggs were sold in 2018 in nine supermarkets in the Berlin area. Since then they have rapidly expanded to 200 Rewe stores and those of its discount brand, Penny. In 2019 Penny was offering the eggs nationwide and other supermarkets soon followed. In Germany Edeka, Marktkauf and Famila sell the brotherless eggs, while a growing number of France’s Carrefour supermarkets now has them, and since March 2020 the Netherland’s second largest supermarket chain Jumbo has signed up for them.
The eggs with a female embryo are placed back into the incubator, the male eggs are then removed and processed into animal feed raw material.” – Seleggt.
The technical implementation of the sex determination procedure and its associated patents are held by the Seleggt consortium. The sex determination takes place on the 9th day of the hatching process. A small hole is made in the egg using a fine laser beam. A drop of fluid is then extracted with a needle. The sex determination is based on hormones found in the urine of the embryo. The colour of a marker fluid indicates whether the embryo is male or female. This analysis takes approximately half an hour. During that time the hatching eggs are ‘on hold’. The eggs are first candled before the technique is applied. The analysis is only performed on ‘living’ embryos. “The analysis takes place around the 9th day of incubation because the embryos do not yet have a ‘conscious pain experience’ at that point,” explains Martijn Haarman, director of both Seleggt and Respeggt.
“The eggs with a female embryo are placed back into the incubator, the male eggs are then removed and processed into animal feed raw material. Seleggt has an agreement with Schaffelaarbos in Barneveld for this. Seleggt produces the brotherless laying hens in Barneveld in the former Reemst Hatchery where between 20,000 and 40,000 hen chickens can be hatched every week. With the demand for brotherless eggs growing, Seleggt can install the analysis technique in other hatcheries as well. “Seleggt is working on the further development of the technology,” says Haarman. “It is still relatively labour intensive. The eggs containing male embryos are selected automatically but the eggs with female embryos have to be put back in the setter trays by hand. Naturally, we want to reduce the amount of manual work by using robot technology, and that is currently in development.”
It will come as no surprise that sex determination comes at a cost. In theory the cost is added in the hatchery, making the hen more expensive to the farmer/integration. The cost burden is not in the value chain, however. Because it is society that demands a ban on culling male layer DOCs, it is the consumer that pays. A subsidiary of Seleggt, called Respeggt, markets the eggs and manages the production chain. The eggs cost 2 cents extra, paid by the end consumer and all traced and monitored with blockchain technology. Stamping the eggs with a Respeggt logo and marketing the added value ‘without chicken deaths’, the additional costs can be recouped.
A second method for determining the sex of chicks in the hatching egg became available in December 2019. The largest French supermarket chain Carrefour has made agreements with chicken supplier Loué to stop the culling of male DOCs. To achieve this, Loué will be installing German sex-determining machines in its hatcheries and Carrefour will increase the retail price for the eggs subsequently delivered. The parties will use technology from the German company AAT, part of the EW Group, which also includes Lohmann Tierzucht. The technology used for the Carrefour eggs uses spectrophotometry, or cameras, to determine the sex of the embryos before they are hatched. AAT’s technology was first introduced in France in December. According to Carrefour, 30,000 eggs should benefit from this technology by 1 May. The supermarket currently charges € 1.78 for six eggs from Loué, but from May 1 the price will rise to € 1.94 per half dozen.
More news from Germany came at the beginning of 2020. Researchers at the Institut für Industrielle Informationstechnik of the Technische Hochschule Ostwestfalen-Lippe in Lemgo and the Hochschule Coburg have applied for another patent for a new method to determine the sex of chicks in the egg. This method uses ‘fluorescence microscopy’ in which a tiny hole is drilled in the egg shell and the contents of the egg are zapped with a laser. According to the researchers, the sex of a chicken embryo can be established as early as day 3 of incubation, with a 75% chance of getting it right. The success rate at day 6 is 95%. The university is currently working on achieving even greater accuracy and expects the technique to be ready ahead of the 2021 deadline set by agriculture minister Julia Klöckner to end the culling of male layer chicks. With these three novel techniques, culling the brothers of laying hens will become obsolete. The introduction of a cull-free egg proves that an ethical dilemma can be eliminated through responsible innovation when research, industry and retail work hand-in-hand.