LONDON, ROTTERDAM, WASHINGTON D.C.––Unilever, the world’s largest maker of egg-based mayonnaise, on September 2, 2014 announced that it will lead a global initiative to end the culling of newly hatched male chicks.
“We are aware of the concerns raised about [how] breeders of egg-laying hens eliminate male chicks,” Unilever posted to the corporate animal welfare policy web site (http://www.unileverusa.com/resource/Animal-Welfarepolicy.aspx). While these are standard practices of suppliers to the broad egg-farming industry and all types of egg products, and although Unilever uses only a relatively small percentage of eggs produced in the market, we take these concerns seriously.
“We are committed,” Unilever said, “to providing financial support to research and market introduction of in-ovo gender identification (sexing) of eggs, a new technology that has the potential to eliminate the hatching and culling of male chicks in the poultry-breeding industry. We are arranging meetings with animal welfare experts, egg industry organizations, suppliers, and other stakeholders to address this important issue and explore alternative options.
“While our approach is to work in support of technologies that would eliminate the culling of male chicks in the industry,” Unilever added, “we are also exploring ways to further meet consumer needs for products with different nutrition profiles and preferences for plant-based protein sources through the use of egg replacement ingredients in some product categories.”
The statement of interest in developing “egg replacement ingredients” may indicate Unilever intent to enter the fast-growing market for non-egg-based mayonnaise-like products.
As a whole, the Unilever announcement will have immediate influence throughout the food industry. The owner, since 2000, of the Hellmann’s and Best Foods mayonnaise brands, Unilever may also be the world’s largest maker of ice creams containing eggs, as owner of the Ben & Jerry’s, Axe/Lynx, Dove, Omo, Becel/Flora, and Heartbrand companies, and overall is the world’s third-largest producer of consumer goods, based on 2012 global sales volume, trailing only Procter & Gamble and Nestle.
“This commitment by Unilever is a hugely welcome development and has the potential to change the egg industry globally for the better,” said Compassion in World Farming chief executive Philip Lymbery.
“I am proud,” Lymbery added, “that CIWF, along with colleagues at Farm Forward, The Humane League, and The Humane Society of the United States, has been able to work with Unilever on developing this new commitment. We look forward to lending our full support to bringing it fruition.”
Current egg industry practice
Currently, explains United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis on the UPC web site, “Along with defective and slow-hatching female chicks, male chicks are trashed as soon as they hatch. Upon breaking out of their shells, instead of being sheltered by a mother’s wings, the newborns are ground up alive, electrocuted, or thrown into trashcans where they slowly suffocate. Because the male chicken of the egg industry cannot lay eggs, and has not been genetically manipulated for profitable meat production, he is of no use to the egg industry. Destruction of unwanted male chicks is a worldwide practice.”
Adds Mary Britton Clouse, executive director of the Minneapolis-based organization Chicken Run Rescue, “Roosters are the most cruelly treated sex of the most cruelly treated species on earth. Since they have no value in egg production, a quarter billion male chicks a year are disposed of at the hatchery––killed as soon as their sex is determined at a day or two day old. There are no laws to protect the chicks from any method of disposal the producer chooses. At a commercial hatchery, of 80,000 chicks hatched per week, 40,000 of them never see the light of their second day.”
Discovering a method of preventing eggs containing male chicks from being hatched, or from being laid in the first place, could save the global egg industry millions of dollars per year. United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization data indicates that as many as six billion hens per year are used in egg production worldwide, suggesting that up to six billion unwanted rooster chicks are culled.
The gender of embryos in some reptile species can be determined by regulating the eggs’ incubation temperature, but extending this discovery to determining the gender of birds’ eggs, including hens’ eggs, has proved to be an elusive goal.
Meanwhile, egg hatcheries rely on either of two methods of visual gender identification, both of which require that the chicks be fully hatched––and therefore sentient––before they can be examined.
Explained The Economist in February 2010, “Vent sexing”, the most common way, requires a worker to squeeze a chick’s anal vent, or cloaca, to clear the feces and assess the size of a telltale bump inside the hole.”
The females of some breeds of poultry have longer pin feathers than those of males, including some relatively rare breeds of egg-laying hen, but as these breeds produce fewer eggs and have not been successfully adapted to “factory farm” housing, they are not widely used, if used at all, by the large-scale commercial egg industry.
The “new technology that has the potential to eliminate the hatching and culling of male chicks” touted by Unilever was developed by Pennsylvania biomedical engineer Tauseef Butt, founder of LifeSensors Inc. and Progenra Inc.
Butt published details of the method in 2010 in the Journal of Animal Science.
Summarized The Economist, “Butt’s new device is an estrogen sniffer. Female embryos produce this hormone in quantity and male ones do not. The sensor uses a fine needle to penetrate both the shell and the allantoic sac of an egg. This sac is a fluid-filled membrane that cushions the embryo and helps it trade carbon dioxide for oxygen from the air. The fluid sample thus extracted is mixed with genetically engineered yeast cells that fluoresce in the presence of estrogen.”
In Butt’s model egg production system, a computerized light-sensing camera guides a marking machine in sampling and bar-coding each egg. This tracks the location of each egg on a conveyor belt. The estrogen identification process takes about two hours to complete. At the end of the process, the conveyor would separate the male and female eggs. The female eggs would be hatched to become egg-laying hens. The male eggs would be rendered into animal feed and fertilizer, just as live male chicks are rendered now.
Assessed The Economist, “It would require some engineering (and a significant amount of storage space) to incorporate such a system into a hatchery. But the tweaks on the actual production line would be relatively minor, according to Butt, and could be incorporated into the existing systems of robotic injectors used to pump vaccines into unhatched eggs. Butt reckons the cost of his system would be two or three cents per egg. The savings in labour, and in the cost of feeding and vaccinating cocks that slip through the existing procedures, should outweigh this. “
“Unilever has already earned our applause for its 2011 decision to end the use of battery cage eggs in its supply chain by shifting entirely to cage-free eggs [by 2020],” blogged Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, crediting Unilever for “dealing with a very ugly, largely hidden and once seemingly unavoidable animal welfare problem.”
Indeed, hatchery disposal of male chicks surfaced as a labor issue decades before attracting much attention from the humane community. Chick-sexers, typically low-paid and poorly educated young women with few other job prospects, working in an assembly-line environments, have notoriously high rates of job turnover, absenteeism, work-related psychological trauma, and substance abuse.
Traditionally, chick-sexers crushed as many culled chicks as possible into garbage bags before dumping the bags into macerating machines. In recent decades the procedure has been accelerated––and the stress on chick-sexers reduced––by the use of conveyor belts, which enable the chick-sexers to shunt male chicks directly to their destruction, intact and alive until they fall into the fast-rotating macerator blades.
Live maceration as an animal killing method was not even mentioned in the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines on Euthanasia until after a 2002 outbreak of Newcastle disease that spread from fighting cocks to laying hens in southern California and southwestern Arizona.
“When a horrified neighbor saw ranchers cramming live chickens into a wood chipper, animal advocates thought they had a winning [anti-cruelty] case. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns led the push for prosecution,” summarized Animal Liberation author Peter Singer and Dawn Watch blogger Karen Dawn in a jointly authored commentary on the controversy that ensued. “Unfortunately,” they continued, “a San Diego deputy district attorney found no criminal intent by the ranchers. She concluded that they were just following professional advice from two veterinarians.”
Mercy for Animals & the AVMA
Language approving of maceration as a killing method for poultry was added to the 2007 edition of the AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia, just before the routine live maceration of male chicks finally came to widespread public notice as result of a Mercy for Animals undercover video exposé taped in May and June 2009 at a hatchery in Spencer, Iowa.
The hatchery owner, Hy-Line North America, three months later admitted to animal welfare policy violations, after undergoing an independent audit, but the practice of live maceration was not among them.
Two years later, from May to August 2011, Mercy for Animals investigators at Sparboe Farms laying hen facilities in Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado collected video of unwanted male chicks being culled by live maceration that was aired on November 18, 2011 by the ABC television programs Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, and 20/20. This video footage, broadcast two days after Sparboe was cited by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for 13 “serious” and “significant” violations of sanitation requirements at five different sites, reportedly cost Sparboe Farms customers including McDonald s Restaurants, Target, Wal-Mart, Cargill Kitchen Solutions, and SuprValu Inc. The Mercy for Animals video also appeared to be the impetus behind the 2012 passage of the Iowa “ag-gag” law, which seeks to conceal agricultural practices by providing that anyone making “a false statement or representation” as part of a job application at an animal facility may be charged with a class D felony, and by defining the production of visual or sound images of farming practices without the permission of the property owner as a crime called“animal facility interference.”
Current AVMA recommendations
Says the 2013 edition of the AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia, “Maceration, via use of a specially designed mechanical apparatus having rotating blades or projections, causes immediate fragmentation and death of poultry up to 72 hours old and embryonated eggs…Death by maceration in poultry up to 72 hours old occurs immediately with minimal pain and distress. Maceration is an alternative to the use of CO2 for euthanasia of poultry up to 72 hours old. Maceration is…considered to be an acceptable means of euthanasia for newly hatched poultry by the Federation of Animal Science Societies, Agriculture Canada, World Organisation for Animal Health, and European Union.
“The method is safe for workers,” opines the AVMA. “Large numbers of animals can be killed quickly.”
But the AVMA cautions that, “Maceration requires special equipment that must be kept in excellent working order. Chicks must be delivered to the macerator in a way and at a rate that prevents a backlog of chicks at the point of entry into the macerator and without causing injury, suffocation, or avoidable distress to the chicks before maceration.”