‘Crushing animals is an aberration’: Tech is saving male chicks from being killed by egg industry

At the start of this year, France promised to ban the culling of male chicks in the egg industry. The practice has been banned in Germany since 2022.

Under the new rules, hatcheries must use in-ovo sexing to determine the sex of embryos before they are born.

Previously, male chicks - of no use to the egg-laying industry and a different breed to those used for meat production - were crushed shortly after hatching.

Now, artificial intelligence (AI) is helping to improve animal welfare in the egg industry.

How does in-ovo sexing work?

German company Agri Advanced Technologies (AAT) uses spectroscopy to determine the sex of an egg.

By shining light through the eggshell, its machines can determine the sex of the embryo with 97 per cent accuracy by calculating the light spectrum.

This technology only works on red hens, which have a sex-specific feather colour when the down begins to form during incubation. They represent 85 per cent of French production.

Currently, the sex of the embryos can be determined at day 13 out of 21 of incubation, with male chicks having white feathers. Ultimately, the company aims to be able to sex eggs on the fourth day.

The non-invasive process leaves the shell intact, meaning there is no risk of contamination.

Other methods of in-ovo sexting, such as those using AI-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can be used for both brown and white eggs. Until these have been developed further, France’s ban on culling male chicks only applies to brown eggs.

Invasive technologies such as biomarker detection, which uses a colour-changing liquid to determine an egg’s sex, and DNA analysis can also be used.

Robots are used to separate eggs by their sex

At AAT, employees bring carts filled with eggs, which are then unloaded by robot at the start of an automated line.

On the 13th day of incubation, the eggs are briefly illuminated from below and the artificial intelligence takes action.

“The image spectrum is analysed by computer. The shell remains intact, there is no risk of bacterial contamination,” explains Anke Förster, of the German company AAT, part of the EW group.

Blue suction cups grab the eggs and separate them according to the algorithm's commands. The female embryos will return to the incubator to hatch a week later.

Unfertilised eggs and those containing males are transformed into animal feed.

The machine developed by AAT, called Cheggy, can analyse 20,000 eggs per hour.

The Lohmann hatchery (also a subsidiary of the EW group) in Vendée, western France has two of the machines and plans to install a third to ‘sex’ up to 60,000 eggs per hour.

The hatchery is one of five French establishments specialising in the supply of female chicks - future laying hens.

Why are male chicks killed in the egg industry?

In the world of eggs, apart from the few roosters kept for breeding, males are superfluous, with hens producing 1.5 trillion unfertilised eggs per year without them.

Male chicks are therefore eliminated after hatching, generally by crushing, a practice that Germany and France have banned in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

Worldwide, around 7 billion male chicks are culled each year in the egg industry.

The problem does not arise in the production of chicken meat: males and females are raised together and slaughtered before sexual maturity.

At AAT, male chicks that are not detected before they hatch are subjected to CO2 gassing - the only method still legal in France - and will end up in zoos to feed birds of prey and reptiles.

This is also the fate of male white hens. An exemption to France’s law allows them to continue to be eliminated after hatching. This is because the profession and the French government consider the technology too immature and too costly to determine their sex before hatching.

Will in-ovo sexing be applied to white eggs in future?

Two French hatcheries can, however, ‘sex’ white hens.

They invested in technology that works with MRI, offered by the German company Orbem. It identifies the ovaries and testicles of future chicks, allowing them to be sorted regardless of the colour of the feathers.

But the rate is much lower: 3,000 eggs per hour per machine. Orbem suggests installing multiple MRIs to increase sexing capacity.

Bénédicte Lanckriet, manager of the Lanckriet hatchery in Picardy, north France - which has two of the machines - is happy to be at the forefront of egg sexing.

“Crushing animals is an aberration. From now on, we only hatch what we need,” she says. But the technology is costly.

“We are eating money with that, it is not profitable at all,” says Bénédicte. Making the practice compulsory throughout Europe would increase the demand for egg-sexed hens and lower costs, she adds.

For the consumer, however, the additional cost is only around three cents for six eggs.