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‘Crushing animals is an aberration’: Technology saves male chicks from being killed by the egg industry

Nature

Here’s how France is using “in-ovo sexing” after partially banning the culling of male chicks earlier this year.

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Earlier this year, France promised to ban the slaughter 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 laying industry and of a different breed to those used for meat production – were crushed shortly after hatching.

NOW, artificial intelligence (AI) contributes to improving animal welfare in the egg industry.

How does in-ovo sexing work?

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

By shining light through the egg shell, its machines can determine the sex of the embryo with 97% accuracy by calculating the light spectrum.

This technology only works on red hens, which exhibit a sex-specific feather color as down begins to form during incubation. They represent 85 percent of French production.

Currently, the sex of embryos can be determined on day 13 out of 21 of incubation, males 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 in-ovo sexting methods, such as those using AI-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can be used for brown and white eggs. Until these measures are developed, the French ban on killing males chicks only applies to brown eggs.

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

Robots are used to separate eggs by sex

At AAT, employees bring in carts full of 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 comes into action.

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

The 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.

Unfertilized eggs and those containing males are turned into animal food.

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

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

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The hatchery is one of five French establishments specializing in the supply of females chicks – future laying hens.

Why are male chicks killed in the egg industry?

In the world of eggs, apart from the few roosters intended for breeding, males are superfluous, with hens producing 1.5 trillion unfertilized 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.

In the world, approximately 7 billion people chicks are slaughtered 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.

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At the AAT, male chicks 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 raptors and reptiles.

This is also the fate of male white chickens. An exemption for FranceThe law of the species allows them to continue to be eliminated after hatching. Indeed, the profession and the French government consider the technology too immature and too expensive to determine their sex before hatching.

Will in-ovo sexing be applied to white eggs in the 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 color of the feathers.

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

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

“Crushing animals is an aberration. Now we only cover what we need,” she says. But this technology is expensive.

“We’re eating up money with that, it’s not profitable at all,” believes Bénédicte. Making the practice mandatory across Europe would increase demand for egg-sexed hens and reduce costs, she adds.

But for the consumer, the extra cost is only about three cents for six eggs.

Nature
euronews

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