14. & 15.
Chicken & Egg
issue 2 (summer 2012), I raised the issue of how the egg industry
copes with the millions of unwanted cockerel chicks hatched every year as part of
the incubation process. As we all know so many of those lovely fluffy chicks turn
out to be the lads that nobody wants, both in the backyard hen keeping world
and the commercial egg laying industry. The boys simply don’t lay eggs.
However, it seems progress may be being made to resolve the matter in a more
welfare-friendly way: at the International Egg Commission Conference in April this
year it was pointed out that nearly 90% of consumers who took part in a study
expressed opposition to the industry killing day old chicks.
Within the study carried out by Dr Leenstra at Wageningen University in the
Netherlands, it was shown that 57% of those spoken to didn’t even know about the
culling process and following consultation 58% said they would like to see it
The practice of culling them became common in the 1950’s when it first became
possible to sex chicks at a day old, but the routine has come under intense scrutiny
recently with parts of Germany agreeing to ban the practice altogether.
But there needs to be a solution. Nobody wants cockerels. Not only do they not
lay eggs, but they don’t carry enough meat to make viable table birds. Scientists
have considered breeding a dual purpose bird, but point out that consumers
would be faced with smaller, more expensive eggs and meat birds would be less
meaty. A dilemma.
As previously explained, not only is there the welfare issue, but also there is a
considerable cost to the industry with so many unwanted cockerels being
incubated in high tech facilities. So research is now being carried out to see if it’s
commercially viable to identify the sex of the chick whilst still in the egg and
geneticists in Australia have been using a protein found in jelly fish to do exactly
this. A fluorescent green protein in the jellyfish, which glows under ultra-violet light,
has been shown to give 90% accuracy on identifying the sex of a developing
embryo. However, this process involves genetically modifying chickens with the
fluorescent green protein – throwing up another ethical dilemma.
With the study carried out by Dr Leenstra in the Netherlands, participants
were asked what they would prefer the industry to do and the highest
number, 25% of respondents, replied that they would like the industry to be
able to check inside a freshly laid egg to determine the sex of chicks.
Nearly 24% opted for a dual purpose bird with nearly half of these
prepared to pay double the price to prevent so many cockerel chicks
being despatched on hatching.