No more fingers up chicks’ anal vents
PARIS, France; BERLIN, Germany––Racing to appear to be ahead of egg industry science, French agriculture minister Didier Guillaume on January 28, 2020 announced that his administration would ban mass culling of male chicks and castration of piglets without anesthetic.
“From the end of 2021, nothing will be like it was before,” Guillaume told media.
The Guillaume declaration followed similar but thus far lightly enforced pronouncements from Germany in 2015 and Switzerland in 2018––and also followed a series of breakthroughs by egg industry researchers in learning to distinguish the gender of egg embryos long before chicks actually hatch.
Macerated, gassed, electrocuted, asphyxiated, crushed
Explained Agence France-Presse, “Some seven billion male chicks, unwanted because they provide neither meat [in the same ratio to feed as so-called ‘broiler’ breeds] nor eggs, are culled around the world every year. Many are ground up alive. Others are gassed, electrocuted, or asphyxiated [and crushed alive] in plastic bags.”
In Germany, Agence France-Presse added, “where 45 million male chicks are macerated each year, a top administrative court ruled in June that the slaughter could continue,” despite the passage of a law against it, “until a method was found to determine the sex of an embryo in the egg,” in lieu of the traditional practice of having “chick sexers” squeeze open newly hatched chicks’ anal vents to do a visual inspection.
“France and Germany announced last November (2019) that they would work together to put an end to the chick massacre,” Agence France-Presse continued, while noting that “A European Union directive from 2009 authorizes shredding [chicks alive] as long as it causes ‘immediate’ death for chicks less than 72 hours old.”
“More research is needed”
Updated Sara Spary, Saskya Vandoorne and Fanny Bobille of CNN a day later, “Maxime Chaumet, general secretary of the poultry trade body Comité National pour la Promotion de l’Oeuf, told CNN more research was needed to find an alternative method to shredding.
“We understand and take note of what the minister of agriculture said,” Chaumet said. “However, we currently have no other method available. At the end of 2021 we hope that we will have a solution.
“Machines will be needed,” Chaumet added. “A two-year time period is quite short,” Chaumet complained, “but the minister is well aware of this. They need to accelerate the research process, because at the moment it’s looking like a complicated ban.”
“A priority & the right thing to do”
“Egg manufacturers in the United States made a similar pledge in 2016,” recalled Washington Post reporter Michael Brice-Saddler, “when United Egg Producers — the industry group that represents hatcheries that produce 95% of all eggs in the United States — announced it would end chick culling by 2020, or as soon as it was ‘economically feasible’ and an alternative was ‘commercially available.’
United Egg Producers president Chad Gregory reaffirmed the 2016 commitment in principle, telling Brice-Saddler that ending chick culling is both “a priority and the right thing to do.”
However, Gregory continued, “Identifying gender in-ovo is scientifically complex and a technologically challenging issue, with millions of dollars already spent by stakeholders to develop a solution. We are hopeful a breakthrough is on the horizon,” Gregory finished.
Sex-sorted eggs sold in Berlin
Science magazine writer Gretchen Vogel, writing from Berlin, Germany, offered a much more optimistic perspective in August 2019.
“In hundreds of grocery stores here,” Vogel began, “shoppers can pay a few extra cents for eggs stamped with a heart and the word respeggt—to show that they were laid by hens that did not hatch alongside male chicks destined for slaughter. This week, the eggs will be available for the first time in stores outside of Berlin. By the end of the year, they will appear all across Germany—a sign that scientists are getting closer to solving a tricky chick-and-egg problem.
The respeggt eggs are marketed by Selggt, described by Oliver Morrison of Food Navigator as “a joint venture between German retailer Rewe and Dutch technology company HatchTech, which, with the help of funding from the German Federal Ministry of Food & Agriculture, has been working to find a solution for the past 10 years.”
“The right technology could solve this right now”
Wrote Vogel, “Sorting males from females before chicks hatch at 21 days wouldn’t just avoid the massacre. Hatcheries would no longer need to employ sexers, they wouldn’t waste space and energy incubating male eggs, and they could sell those eggs as a raw material for animal feed producers, the cosmetics industry, or vaccine manufacturers.”
Agreed Timothy Kurt, scientific program director at the USDA Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research in Washington, D.C., “Everyone wants the same thing, and the right piece of technology could solve this right now.”
The technology behind the respeggt eggs, Vogel explained, “sorts them based on sex hormones. Funding from governments and industry has prompted an abundance of other ideas—from laser spectroscopy to magnetic resonance imaging scans to genetic engineering.”
USDA funds six researchers
On November 22, 2019, the USDA Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research “awarded $1,056,957 to six organizations,” it announced to help further the development of egg sexing methods, while “The Open Philanthropy Project provided matching funding for a total prize amount of $2,113,915.”
Abdennor Abbas of the University of Minnesota received $400,000 to work on “an artificial intelligence platform for rapid and non-invasive egg sex identification,” using “a 3D scanner to analyze the geometric shape of eggs and proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry to analyze the volatile organic compounds” they emit.
Pedro Gomez of Orbem Ai received total funding of $1,549,911 to “develop specialized technology that automatically scans and classifies eggs without touching them,” using “accelerated magnetic resonance imaging technology” in combination with “advanced artificial intelligence. This MRI approach,” the USDA announcement said, “allows Gomez to examine the organ development of embryos to detect physical differences between the males and females, without penetrating the shell.”
At the speed of light
John Humphrey of Microscale Devices LLC received $667,918 total funding “to use multidimensional spectral mapping technology to identify the sex of eggs from 0-12 days of incubation. This technology,” the USDA announcement explained, “shoots different wave lengths of light at the egg and detects the refracted light patterns. Artificial intelligence will be employed to develop an optical fingerprint, or signature, that can determine the sex of eggs in less than five seconds.”
Jeroen Lammertyn of KU Leuven received $966,212 “to use a gender specific volatile detection technique to determine sex in ovo.
Adam Rivers of the USDA Animal Research Service won $396,762 “to use fiber optics and machine learning for analysis of volatiles” in combination with “proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry,” to be done “at a rate of 2000 samples per hour,” to analyze the differences between male and female eggs.
Finally, Thomas Turpen of SensIT Ventures, Inc. received $400,000 “to develop a microchip-based chemical sensor for early-stage in ovo sex determination.”
The developer of the most promising egg sexing technology is to receive an additional $4.5 million for further research and development in 2021.
“Essentially the embryo’s pee”
Meanwhile, explained Morrison of Food Navigator, Leipzig University veterinary endocrinologist Almuth Einspanier “laid the groundwork for the respeggt brand” by discovering that “by day nine of development, female embryos produce a hormone called estrone sulfate that can be detected reliably in fluid that builds up in the egg—”essentially the embryo’s pee,” Einspanier told Vogel.
The Seleggt company, of Cologne, Germany, then “built a robot that fires a laser to open a hole in the shell much smaller than a pinhead,” Vogel summarized. “It sucks out a minuscule drop of the fluid and adds it to a solution that turns blue in the presence of the female hormone. Female eggs go to the incubator and male eggs are sent off to be frozen and processed into powder for animal feed.”
Seleggt managing director Ludger Breloh told Vogel that the system is already sorting up to 3,000 eggs an hour in a Dutch hatchery.
“Nine-day-old embryo might feel pain”
“But large hatcheries process as many as 50,000 eggs an hour,” Vogel noted. “Some animal welfare advocates raise a more fundamental problem, claiming that a nine-day-old embryo might feel pain. And hatcheries must pay for nine days of incubation costs.
“Gerald Steiner, an expert in medical imaging at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, helped find a test that works at day four,” Vogel continued. “His team shines a laser through a thumbnail-size hole in the eggshell and measures fluorescent signals from the blood cells. The signals are different for male and female embryos, likely because males develop slightly faster and form certain blood cells sooner. The group is working with Agri Advanced Technologies, a German subsidiary of one of Europe’s largest chicken breeders,” Vogel said, “to develop a prototype system.”
Vogel also mentioned Ovabrite, of Austin, Texas, “chasing a technique that would leave the eggshell intact and sort eggs before incubation. Mass spectrometers would capture and analyze sex-specific volatile molecules that leak through the eggshell. Scientists suspect the molecules, first discovered in quail eggs, may allow parent birds to smell clues about an embryo’s development and sex. But it is still a challenge to reliably detect such a faint signal from pre-incubation eggs,” Ovabrite president Jonathan Hoopes told Vogel.
Vogel concluded by citing genetic engineering experiments underway in Australia and Israel, using “the CRISPR gene-editing technique to modify hens’ sex chromosomes so that their sons carry a marker gene that makes male eggs glow under fluorescent light.
“Public opposition to genetic modification in Europe means the approach is unlikely to catch on there,” Vogel predicted, but North American and Australian consumers are much less resistant to genetically modified food products, her sources noted, and in any event the eggs sold for human consumption would not include the marker gene.
Momentum vs. “Hold the mayo”
The leading threat to further technological progress in egg sexing, ironically, may be legislation meant to expedite it, since––especially within the European Union––such laws could drive egg production out of the very nations where the most headway has already been made.
Momentum toward replacing chick culling with egg sexing has been building since Unilever, the world’s largest maker of egg-based mayonnaise, owner of both the Hellman’s and Best Foods mayonnaise brands, on September 2, 2014 announced that it would lead a global initiative to end the culling of newly hatched male chicks.
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 appears to be overall the world’s third-largest producer of consumer goods, trailing only Procter & Gamble and Nestle.
The Guillaume announcements about ending chick culling and requiring that anesthesia be given to piglets before castration meanwhile did not impress many European animal advocates.
Compassion in World Farming said that Guillaume should have moved to stop the castration of piglets altogether, which is done to prevent “boar taint” in male pigs who reach sexual maturity before slaughter, “and expressed disappointment,” Agence France Presse said, “that Guillaume did not announce a ban on eggs from cage-raised chickens.”
L214, a French organization “which opposes all meat consumption,” Agence France Presse reported, said the Guillaume announcements measures were “not ambitious” and “do not address the basic problems,” mentioning “nothing on slaughter conditions, nor on how to exit from intensive animal farming.”
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