Roughly 260 million male chicks are killed each year in the U.S. since they are not considered suitable for broiler chicken production and don’t produce eggs.
In recent years, solutions to the costly culling, such as in-ovo sexing — identifying the sex of the eggs early in gestation, have been developed. And promising new data from thinktank Innovate Animal Ag indicates interest among U.S. consumers. But the test will be if egg producers in the U.S. will adopt the practice, as their European counterparts have.
In an exclusive survey shared with Food Dive consisting of more than 1,000 Americans, Innovate Animal Ag found an overall lack of knowledge about the practice of culling male chicks. Only 11% of consumers know the practice happens. But once they learned about the issue, 73% of respondents said they agree the egg industry should find an alternative practice to killing male chicks.
Robert Yaman, the executive director and founder of Innovate Animal Ag, said his group helps support companies who want to integrate the technology by conducting research, informing consumers and lobbying policymakers. He believes the adoption of techniques by egg industry figures will happen within the next few years.
“Oftentimes these conversations can be kind of like zero-sum, that either we pay more cost for better welfare or we don't,” Yaman said. “But technologies, because they expand the space of what's possible, increase our capabilities and ultimately allow us to have both something that's going to be both better for consumers and better long term for the producers.”
Innovate Animal Ag said in-ovo sexing technology could enter the U.S. market through investments from large producers, such as Unilever, Vital Farms and United Egg Producers which have each indicated an interest.
It is increasingly being adopted by European egg industry, with 10 to 20% of egg producers utilizing them, the group said. This was spurred by legislation across the continent, including in France and Germany, which banned the killing of male chicks. The EU is considering phasing out the practice by the end of 2023 amid pressure from animal welfare organizations. Such political considerations are not being widely discussed in the U.S. currently, Innovate Animal Ag said.
There was broad support among respondents to the survey on chicks being culled, with 81.6% saying they would be either extremely, very or somewhat interested in purchasing eggs from a supplier that used in-ovo sexing.
Animal welfare was the consideration most people took into account, with 52% calling it very important, followed by sustainability from decreased resource usage and the possibility of cheaper costs for producers.
The impact of premium pricing for the eggs painted a more varied picture. When asked how much more they would be willing to pay for a dozen eggs that were produced using in-ovo sexing, 29% said none, while 38.4% of respondents said anywhere between 12 cents and 84 cents more.
Egg industry considerations
A significant factor for the egg industry, Yaman said, is production costs. Hatcheries pay for the technology to use it on their eggs, which producers then buy and sell at a premium fee. But Yaman said in-ovo sexing will greatly help egg producers save money in the long term, as killing male chicks costs producers roughly $500 million per year.
“The impact on egg producers is fairly minimal, and in fact potentially represents an opportunity to go into a higher margin market without the big upfront costs you’ve seen in other things they’ve been doing like cage-free,” Yaman said.
The egg industry has taken interest in adopting the technology over the last few years. In a 2021 statement, United Egg Producers — which claims to represent 95% of American egg operations — said it supports the aims of those in the space working toward a solution, but concluded that the technology needed more investment and research before it could become scalable.
“Regular reporting to egg industry leaders worldwide indicates that a method that meets the food safety, ethical standards and scalable solutions needed for the United States is not yet available,” the trade group said. “We believe this goal is achievable with time and research, and we will do our part to reach it.”
In a response to Food Dive’s request for comment on developments in the space, United Egg Producers reiterated its 2021 statement.
The success of animal welfare advocates in the cage-free eggs arena — specifically in this year’s Supreme Court ruling on a California law that requires free-range space for eggs sold in the state — indicates that consumer sentiment around protecting the well-being of eggs is increasing, according to Yaman.