Chick culling is the process of killing newly hatched chicks for which the intensive animal farming industry has no use. It occurs in all industrialised egg production whether free range, organic, or battery cage—including that of the UK and US. Because male chickens do not lay eggs and only those on breeding programmes are required to fertilise eggs, they are considered redundant to the egg-laying industries and are usually killed shortly after being sexed, which occurs after they hatch. Many methods of culling do not involve anaesthetics and include cervical dislocation, asphyxiation by carbon dioxide and maceration using a high speed grinder. Asphyxiation is the primary method in the United Kingdom, while maceration is the primary method in the United States. By 2020, US producers expect to sex the eggs before they hatch, so male eggs can be culled.
Due to modern selective breeding, laying hen strains differ from meat production strains (broilers). In the United States, males are culled in egg production, since males "don’t lay eggs or grow large enough to become broilers".
Ducklings and goslings are also culled in the production of foie gras. However, because males put on more weight than females in this production system, the females are culled, sometimes in an industrial macerator. Up to 40 million female ducks per year may be killed in this way. The remains of female ducklings are later used in cat food, fertilisers and in the pharmaceutical industry.
Prior to the development of modern broiler meat breeds, most male chickens (cockerels) were slaughtered for meat, whereas females (pullets) would be kept for egg production. However, once the industry successfully bred separate meat and egg-producing hybrids—starting in the 1920s and 1930s—there was no reason to keep males of the egg-producing hybrid. As a consequence, the males of egg-laying chickens are killed as soon as possible after hatching and sexing to reduce losses incurred by the breeder. Special techniques have been developed to accurately determine the sex of chicks at as young an age as possible.
As of 2018, worldwide around 7 billion day-old male chicks were culled per year in the egg industry.
Several methods are used to cull chicks:
- Maceration; the chicks are placed into a large high-speed grinder.
- Cervical dislocation; the neck is broken.
- Electrocution; an electric current is passed through the chick's body until it is dead.
- Suffocation; the chicks are placed in plastic bags.
- Gases or gas mixtures; carbon dioxide is used to induce unconsciousness and then death.
US recommended methods
The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends cervical dislocation, maceration, and asphyxiation by carbon dioxide as preferred methods of culling. The 2005–2006 American Veterinary Medical Association Executive Board proposed a policy change, recommended by the Animal Welfare Committee on the killing of unwanted chicks, poults, and pipped eggs. The policy states "Unwanted chicks, poults, and pipped eggs should be killed by an acceptable humane method, such as use of a commercially designed macerator that results in instantaneous death. Smothering unwanted chicks or poults in bags or containers is not acceptable. Pips, unwanted chicks, or poults should be killed prior to disposal. A pipped egg, or pip, is one where the chick or poult has not been successful in escaping the egg shell during the hatching process."
Animal welfare advocates maintain that many of the current practices surrounding chicken slaughtering are unethical. Animal rights advocates argue that it is wrong to unnecessarily exploit and kill other sentient beings for food production, including chicks.
In June 2019, in Germany, a court case was decided that the current way of culling chicks "violates the country's laws against killing animals without a justifiable reason."
Several technologies may obviate chick culling by determining the sex of a chick before hatching. These technologies rely on measuring eggs (through spectroscopy, chemical assays, or imaging); they can determine a chick's sex within 4-9 days of laying. Some methods require genetic engineering to make male eggs fluorescent. Such methods are attractive not only for ethical reasons but to reduce the costs of employing human cullers and of incubating male eggs. Timothy Kurt, a director from the United States Department of Agriculture, said, "Everyone wants the same thing, and the right piece of technology could solve this right now."
A Unilever spokesperson has been quoted as saying "We have also committed to providing funding and expertise for research and introduction of alternative methods such as in-ovo gender identification (sexing) of eggs. This new technology offers the potential to eliminate the hatching and culling of male chicks."
In September 2019, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a company that was founded by the United States congress in 2014 will award six contestants from ten countries, $6 million for working entries. United Egg Producers intends to be cull-free by 2020.
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