A secret about eggs | Agriculture Dive

By Staff
8 Min Read

Ever since Colonel Sanders popularized the concept of chicken in a basket, it has become common to see cartoon animals seemingly happy to be eaten. Similarly, it is quite normal to see adorable little chicks adorning the top of egg boxes or pecking at corn in farm yards. After all, chicks are cute and everyone loves them, right?

While nothing beats the taste of fresh eggs taken from happy free-range hens, there is a much darker side to egg production that is often overlooked. In this case, I’m not referring to the issue of battery hens, but something else entirely.

Bad eggs

America’s poultry industry is divided by egg producers and meat producers. Meat producers can use both male and female chickens for their products. But in the egg-laying industry, only female birds are useful.

Male chicks are considered a byproduct. Thus, male chicks are culled en masse, literally crushed – hundreds of millions of them – 21 million a year just in the UK. 

Optional Caption

Permission granted by Alex Crisp


Every day, hatcheries around the world are faced with the challenge of dealing with male chicks that serve no purpose in the consumer egg production cycle. These fluffy chicklings, having just emerged confused and bewildered from their shells, are quickly sorted from their female counterparts and funneled into industrial shredders or gas chambers to a violent end. Not even an hour of life and already a nasty death is thrust upon them. 

The reasons behind this mass killing are rooted in the economics of the egg industry. Male chicks do not grow up to lay eggs, and they do not have the genetics required for meat production. As a result, they are considered a waste product with no value to producers. In order to maintain efficient egg production, hatcheries have resorted to culling male chicks as soon as they are identified, typically within the first 24 to 48 hours of life.

Words or phrases like ‘industrial’ and ‘animal-farming’ do not pair well.. When animal farming becomes industrial and efficiency and profit are prioritized, terrible things can happen if unchecked.

The scale of this practice is staggering. It is estimated that billions of male chicks are culled each year, worldwide, making it a routine but highly distressing aspect of industrial egg production. The sheer volume of chicks being euthanized in this manner is a stark reminder of the disconnect between consumers and the reality of modern food production.

A new dawn – a new egg

In response to mounting pressure, some companies and governments have taken steps to address the issue. In 2019, Germany became the first country to ban the practice of chick culling, with other European countries such as France, following suit.

Animal welfare advocates and ethical consumers have long since been pointing out the inhumanity of culling male chicks solely for the sake of maximizing egg production. Calls have been made for more humane alternatives, such as developing technology to determine the sex of chicks (in-ovo) before they hatch or transitioning to dual-purpose breeds that are suitable for both egg and meat production. In the U.S., Egg Innovations will be the first American company committed to implementing in-ovo sexing technology to populate their family farms. 

A non-profit organization, IAA (Innovate Animal Ag) estimates that within the EU in-ovo testing has now reached 15% penetration. German company, Orbam hopes to increase this capacity and has raised substantial funding to enable massive scale-up in 2024.  There are several start-ups in the EU working in this space so it’s very possible that chick culling could soon become a thing of the past. 

Getting eggs-perimental 

Over the last ten years exciting new biotechnology has made significant progress; both in the science of fermentation to produce milk, cheese, and eggs, and in engineering cells to produce meat – all without the need for cows, pigs, or chickens etc.  

Formo, a German company based in Berlin are making animal-free eggs through the use of precision fermentation. The new egg product does not need regulatory approval and so is expected to be released to the market very soon. 

Growing meat and dairy from cultivated cells and precision fermentation is no longer science fiction. Cultivated chicken has been approved for sale in the USA and Singapore and 2024 is likely to see a raft of new approvals in such areas as seafood, pork and beef. 

In the UK it is expected that cats will soon be able to enjoy cultivated meat in their Omni pet food products, since it partnered with UK cultivated meat company Meatly. Retailer, Pets at Home is expected to be the first company to offer the product to market, before the end of 2024. 

Some see the new science as a potential solution to environmental and ethical issues associated with industrial meat and dairy production, such as egg culling. But controversy has plagued the new science – some referring to meat grown in a bio reactor as ‘fake meat’ or ‘franken-meat’.  

How do you like yours?

Without cruelty.  

It is thought by many that our meat and dairy come from happy animals on cosy, family run farms – however the reality is different. In the USA more than 95% of all meat and dairy now derives from industrial farming and the rest of the world are fast catching up. 

Human nature is mostly compassionate and people don’t want their breakfast to stem from unnecessary brutality. Surveys carried out by Bryant Research indicates that more than 90% of people don’t agree with farming practices which cause unnecessary harm to animals.  60% of people surveyed supported an outright ban on factory farming.

The global demand for animal proteins is increasing along with the population. Average meat consumption per person has doubled since 1970. Developing nations are enjoying a higher standard of living which means that they’re demanding more meat and dairy. Unless changes are introduced the industrialization of farming is likely to intensify with all the problems which might come with that.

Update: This story has been updated to include Egg Innovations. The company will be the first company in the United States to utilize in-ovo sexing technology, eliminating male chick culling.


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