In Ovo it will be
If all goes as planned, the worldwide killing of 3.2 billion male chickens each year may come to an end from 2018. A Dutch biotech company, In Ovo, is expecting that within two years it can introduce a machine that is able to detect the sex of a fertilised egg, inside the egg, before hatching. Germany has already announced that it is going to impose this method of in-ovo sex detection for all hatcheries.
Currently, the billions of male laying chickens are discarded every year, some through shredding, but most by Co2-gassing, because they don’t have any significant value in the food chain. In The Netherlands, around 45 million cockerels are killed. The dead chicks are sold as animal feed to zoos and to folks that keep reptiles, snakes or birds of prey. The total number of culled cockerels in the European Union amounts to 330 million. Animal rights organisations have been protesting against this practice for years, and also among the general public, the resistance has increased.
Two bright students from the University of Leiden, Wouter Bruins and Wil Stutterheim, agreed that this practice was shameful. In 2011 they teamed up in In Ovo, a new biotech company that was dedicated to find a solution to this problem. Backed up by the Leiden University and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, ‘eggsperts’ Bruins and Stutterheim have developed ways to analyse certain substances in the fertilised egg that determine the sex of the chick. On day 8 of the hatching process, a needle is inserted in the egg and extracts a little liquid from the egg (not from the embryo). After quick identification, male eggs can be discarded and female eggs can continue the hatching process normally.
In Ovo is working together with a Dutch engineering company, Sanovo, to develop the screening machine. Their aim is a capacity of 40,000 screened eggs per hour. Both companies expect that it will take two more years to get the system market-ready.
In Germany, 48 million male chicks were killed last year. As far back as 2013, the Agricultural Department of the state of North RhineWestphalia already issued a decree that banned the culling of cockerels. Local hatcheries complained about this, and went to court. Now, the German minister of agriculture Christian Schmidt says he wants to end the culling practice nationwide as soon as possible, using this new technique.
Whether European hatcheries will embrace this development is wait and see. But considering the other alternatives, it’s very likely that they will. One studied alternative is the development of a dual-purpose layer, so that male layers can be reared for poultry meat consumption. So far, this has not yet lead to a feasible new type of chicken. Another option is using genetic modification to breed female chicks only, or to make sure that male chicks won’t survive after hatching. But we Europeans don’t like tinkering and tampering with genes.
So in-egg determination seems the most feasible. Destroying the male eggs on day 8 is animal friendly, because the chick’s brain is not fully developed yet so it won’t feel any pain. And discarding half of the eggs on day 8 means that hatcheries can either cut down electricity costs or optimise their hatching capacity. And as sexing of chickens is now done manually by employees at a conveyor belt, In Ovo selection will cut down labour costs as well. So my prediction? In Ovo selection it will be.¡