Informed consumers favour tech solutions to end male chick culling

In-ovo sexing systems rapidly scan eggs and determine the sex of the embryo, to prevent the culling of male layer siblings.
In-ovo sexing systems rapidly scan eggs and determine the sex of the embryo, to prevent the culling of male layer siblings.

A few years ago when the public became aware that male chicks at laying hen breeding farms are culled after hatching, the reaction of consumers who heard about the practice was not positive. Consumers generally don’t care that it’s not considered financially worthwhile to raise these males for meat; they just want the culling to stop.

A new survey has confirmed this stance among US consumers. Although knowledge of the practice is still quite limited, once they are told about it, they want the practice ended. And they’re willing to pay more for eggs from such production systems.

It’s currently estimated that between 260 million and 300 million male chicks of layer breeding lines are culled every year in the US. In-ovo sexing systems rapidly scan eggs and determine the sex of the embryo. Eggs with male embryos are not incubated to hatching but are rather chilled immediately and go directly for human consumption in one form or another.

The new survey was commissioned by a consulting firm called Innovate Animal Ag. A Nielson Consumer Insights survey was conducted among just over 1,000 US egg purchasers in late June and early July.

Extrapolating the results to the entire US population, the survey found that only 11% of US consumers currently know that culling male chicks immediately after they hatch is common practice in the egg industry. About 48% of respondents thought male chicks from laying breeders were raised for meat. When all respondents who didn’t already know about the culling of male chicks were informed, the vast majority – just over 80% – supported the use of no-kill alternatives, and 71% were willing to pay a premium for eggs produced in systems that use in-ovo sexing technology. Of those people, 55% were willing to pay a premium of US$0.36 or more (€0.34) per dozen eggs. Innovate Animal Ag notes that €0.34 is the current maximum price premium for such eggs in the EU.

Industry reaction

In terms of how the survey results seem to be resonating within the US egg industry, Innovate Animal Ag founder Robert Yaman says that it has already shown support for efforts to eliminate chick culling using new technologies, like in-ovo sexing.

“These survey results confirm what many in the industry have long suspected about consumer attitudes,” says Yaman. “The difference now is how much the technology has progressed in the last few years, and we’ve already seen increased interest from producers in the specialty segment of the market.”

But how quickly can steps towards in-ovo sexing be made in the US? Yaman doesn’t want to hazard a guess, but he believes the price of commodity eggs will stay the same when the technology is implemented. “Our survey shows that there is strong demand for in-ovo sexed eggs at a price that the current technology can meet,” he says.

United Egg Producers, representing the majority of US egg producers, started exploring the issue and supporting in-ovo sexing tech in 2016, outlined in a statement in 2021. “In 2016, UEP’s board called for the elimination in the laying industry of day-old male chick culling after hatch,” UEP stated. “Since that time, our members have supported and strongly advocated for the research of methods and the adoption of new technologies to end male chick culling at hatcheries – this is a priority and is the right thing to do. UEP [has] also engaged with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in advancing the organisation’s Egg-Tech Prize which would provide up to US$6 million to researchers developing technologies that can accurately and quickly determine the sex of layer chick eggs before they hatch.”

US egg producers, such as Vital Farms and major player Unilever, have indicated an interest in using in-ovo sexing technologies. Unilever states on its website: “We’re closely following the development of alternative options to current practices, such as technologies for sexing and raising the hens’ male siblings as a dual-purpose breed. We’ve committed to supporting the market introduction of effective technologies once they are available.”

Companies want to do the right thing and also show consumers that their opinions matter. They also know mandates are coming in the US to stop chick culling, as this has already started in Europe. The practice was banned in France from the start of this year and it will be illegal to cull male layer chicks in Germany by the end of this year.

Indeed, the introduction of a phasing-out of the practice throughout the EU may be announced anytime. Yaman concludes: “We’ve seen in other countries that widespread knowledge of the practice has led to regulation. We believe the egg industry is best served by pro-actively innovating and utilising better solutions. Our survey shows there’s a business opportunity at every step of the supply chain to move to a new higher margin category and [for companies to] strengthen their brand with consumers.”

Rearing male chicks

Even though rearing male chicks for meat has long been considered not financially worthwhile, one company in the US is already doing it. Kipster, which is based in the Netherlands, decided in late 2022 to do this in its US operations. These roosters are slaughtered at 15 weeks of age.

To help with this (and to speed up the sexing of chicks before culling), some companies have developed specialised machines. Xiashu Technology has marketed the first commercial chick vent sexing technology in the world. The system has a 98.5% accuracy and can categorise 1,000 chicks per hour.

In-ovo system adoption

Most of the global egg industry supports the use of in-ovo sexing technology. Innovate Animal Ag estimates that up to 20% of the European egg industry is already using it. Earlier this year, Orbem installed its ‘Genus Focus’ in-ovo sexing technology at a Hendrix Genetics laying hen hatchery in Mur-de-Bretagne, France. In February 2023, Vepymo, a Dutch egg producer with a large market share in egg production in France and Belgium (and part of Hendrix Genetics) installed the In Ovo ‘Ella’ machine at its hatchery. In May, Steinsland & Co hatchery in Norway installed the respeggt SELEGGT in-ovo sexing system. The SELEGGT system was installed in various hatcheries in Germany and the Netherlands during 2021 and 2022.

Tech review

In early 2023, a group of Chinese scientists published a review of in-ovo sexing technologies, as well as recent research on tech centred on molecular, spectral, acoustic, morphology and volatile organic compound-based methods. They note that additional in-ovo sexing applications are expected with the development of new, more powerful spectral sources and sensors with increased sensitivity.

“Further research is needed to decrease the cost of sensors, improve the detection limit and classification accuracy, build a multiband database and improve system performance and software applications,” they said.

They believe more machine and deep learning image processing and modelling methods should be applied in future research. They also stress that sexing “should be used before a chick embryo develops its sensory nervous system which occurs on approximately the seventh day of incubation.” Both the SELEGGT system and In Ovo’s Ella system function from day 9.

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Treena Hein Correspondent