It's a disturbing practice most Americans probably know nothing about: On the day they're born, all the fluffy male chicks born to egg-laying hens at hatcheries are gruesomely killed — usually by being run, while conscious, through what is essentially a blender. That's because they're useless to the industry: They can't grow up to lay eggs, and they weren't bred to be the fast-growing chickens sold as meat.
But that's going to change. In what counts as huge news in the animal welfare world, United Egg Producers — the industry group that represents hatcheries that produce 95 percent of all eggs produced in the United States — announced Thursday that it would end this "culling" of millions of chicks by 2020, or as soon as it's "economically feasible" and an alternative is "commercially available," according to The Humane League, which negotiated the agreement.
What's the alternative? The main one is called in-ovo sexing, and it identifies the gender of a future chick inside a fertilized egg. The technology, developed in Germany and the Netherlands, will mean those male chicks will never be born — or ground or gassed or suffocated, the kill methods some hatcheries employ. Other alternatives are also being explored, including one that would turn male chick eggs a different color from those of females, Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, said in a recent interview.
"We are aware that there are a number of international research initiatives underway in this area, and we encourage the development of an alternative with the goal of eliminating the culling," Chad Gregory, the president and CEO of United Egg Producers, said in a statement.
The pledge follows a wave of vows by major U.S. companies — including McDonald's and Walmart — to switch in the coming years to eggs laid by hens that are not confined in cages. Those commitments are one pillar of a series of big, consumer-driven animal rights achievements in recent years, many of them in the farm industry.
But the male chick issue hasn't been at the top of the agenda of most animal welfare organizations, which have focused more on cage-free eggs. As Shapiro explained it recently, the males are "the lucky ones" compared to the females that go on to lay about 270 eggs each year in cages the size of a piece of copy paper.
"Their sisters are still going to be slaughtered, but they're going to spend 18 months in a cage where they can never spread their wings," he said. "Eighteen months of unmitigated misery is far worse than what happens to these male chicks."
But the Humane League, a relatively new group that's also played a big role in pressuring companies to switch to cage-free eggs, evidently also decided to drill down on the male culling. Its statement, issued jointly with United Egg Producers, said it "exclusively" brokered the industry group's commitment to ending the practice.
"United Egg Producers' decision to support the elimination of newborn male chick culling is a historic tipping point and will prevent the suffering of hundreds of millions of animals each year," the statement said.
In 2014, Unilever — which owns Hellman's mayonnaise, among other egg-using companies — publicly committed to supporting the development of in-ovo technology and switching to it. What's become of that effort is unclear, however. A company spokeswoman told The Washington Post last month that the company was working with the Dutch firm In Ovo but did not respond to requests for more information.
What is clear is that the United States may be among the first nations to do away with male chick culling. (Germany has pledged to end it by 2017, but the country's parliament recently voted down a ban.) In a country that's hardly famous for humane animal farming practices, this is a big deal.