Every year, up to 7 billion day-old male chicks are tossed into shredding machines, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags—a process known as “chick culling.” This grim ritual is underpinned by both biology and economics: Male chicks don’t lay eggs, and they fatten up too slowly to be sold as meat. Across the globe, culling has become the default strategy for the egg industry to eliminate unwanted hatchlings.
“It is horrible. You see these puffy, newly hatched chicks on a conveyor belt,” headed toward a large blade that slices them “into a gazillion pieces,” says Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group in the United States. In recent years, local and international animal-rights groups, particularly in France, Germany, and the U.S., have been ramping up pressure on governments and the egg industry to commit to ending the practice—particularly given technological innovations that allow producers to identify the sex of a developing chick before it hatches. The process is called “in-ovo-sexing,” and such technologies, versions of which are already deployed in some countries, can obviate the need for live chick culling.
Nearly five years ago, United Egg Producers, an agricultural cooperative whose members are responsible for producing more than 90 percent of all commercial eggs in the U.S., released a statement pledging to eliminate chick culling by 2020, or as soon as a “commercially available and economically feasible” technology became accessible. That pledge was negotiated with the Humane League, an animal-rights nonprofit organization. But 2020 has come and gone, and although UEP’s pledge wasn’t legally binding, some egg-industry leaders and scientists say there is little sign that the industry is anywhere near phasing in cull-free technologies that could still meet the colossal supply of more than 100 billion eggs produced every year in the U.S.