Help coming from France & Germany
NEWPORT, Tennessee; IRONTON, Ohio; PARIS, France––What do recent French and German edicts against crushing or gassing unwanted male chicks born at hen hatcheries have to do with cockfighting, corruption, drug addiction, fatal dog attacks, and the price of eggs in Appalachia?
Not much, you say?
Take a closer look at recent ANIMALS 24-7 coverage documenting the Newport, Tennessee dog attacks that killed Tony Ahrens and Amber Miller, the violent assaults on field investigators for Showing Animals Respect & Kindness by alleged cockfighters in Ironton, Ohio, and the intertwined issues of drug abuse and corrupt law enforcement in many other Appalachian communities.
(See Why were Amber Miller & Tony Ahrens killed by dogs in Newport, TN?, Grand jury indicts alleged assailants of humane investigator Steve Hindi, and Rare busts hit cockfighting, dog torture, & other Appalachian pastimes.)
At the cultural level, these issues are much more intertwined than almost anyone might imagine at a glance, from animal advocates campaigning against both cockfighting and the egg industry, to addiction counselors and law enforcement personnel––those not on the take, anyhow––struggling against runaway methamphetamine abuse in small towns where there may be more drug dealers than entry-level jobs for young and unskilled workers outside of the poultry industry.
Cockfighting originated around the dawn of hen-keeping, before written history, as a means of disposing of surplus roosters.
Cockfighting exists, essentially, as a statement that life is cheap, and may be squandered with impunity for a few minutes entertainment.
Rooster life is cheap because about half of all eggs hatched produce roosters, while only the hens of breeds developed to lay eggs are in commercial demand.
Historically, most surplus roosters were eaten, but as chicken breeds were developed specifically to produce either more meat or more eggs, demand for rooster meat from egg-laying breeds decreased, the rooster surplus from the eggs of laying breeds increased, and disposing of those roosters became a perpetual problem for the egg industry.
Poultry production & crystal meth
Though custom-bred gamefowl now command far greater prices than even the most expensive chicken dinner, cockfighting to this day thrives mostly in proximity to the commercial chicken and egg industries, the existence of which indirectly subsidize keeping poultry for other purposes.
The association of commercial egg production with drug and alcohol abuse, meanwhile, has been recognized by industrial psychologists for decades longer than crystal meth has been around. The arrival of crystal meth just made matters worse.
Numbers tell the story: of the 10 states ranking highest in laying hen production, six also rate among the top 10 in meth busts, according to 2018 data assembled by the Missouri State Highway Patrol from information collected by the National Clandestine Laboratory Seizure System.
(Missouri, incidentally, is not on either list, but several mostly rural states, including parts of relatively sparsely populated Appalachia, are on both lists.)
Many aspects of raising poultry either for eggs or meat contribute to the depression and stress causing workers to turn to drugs, especially crystal meth.
Meth habits develop, thrive, and produce a drug-dealing subculture protected by dangerous dogs amid the monotony of the low-paid work, the frequency of chronic repetitive motion injuries in poultry industry line jobs, standing for long unrelieved time frames, the need for personnel to emotionally distance themselves from the cries of doomed and suffering birds, and the reality that line workers in the poultry industry rarely advance to any more pleasant and better-paying work.
Most poultry industry line workers burn out long before they have any opportunity to be promoted.
Among the most emotionally stressful line jobs in the chicken industry, and one of the jobs most often delegated to newly hired and inexperienced young women, is chick sexing.
Male hatchlings of some poultry breeds can be distinguished by color. But most chick sexers must squeeze open newly hatched chicks’ anal vents to do a quick visual inspection. Males are then tossed into bins or heavy-duty plastic garbage bags to suffocate under the weight of others until taken for live maceration, or are flipped onto a conveyor belt that feeds them directly into the macerator.
The macerator is a high-speed meat grinder that pulverizes live chicks in split seconds.
Even in job-starved Appalachia, chick sexing makes almost any other work, including illegal work, look attractive.
Banned in France
But chick sexing in western Europe is on the way out.
U.S. egg producers who resist the trend can expect to lose global market share. This is not necessarily because consumers are becoming more conscientious about what they eat. Rather, new technology that separates rooster from hen embryos long before they hatch is enormously more cost-effective than the traditional chick sexing, which requires incubating each egg for up to two additional two weeks.
French agriculture minister Julien Denormandie on July 18, 2021 reiterated a 2020 promise that effective on January 1, 2022, France will no longer allow male chicks to be macerated or gassed, parallel to a similar policy in Germany.
France currently culls 50 million male chicks per year, Denormandie said; Germany culls 45 million. Worldwide, the egg industry culls more than seven billion male chicks per year, about six billion of them in the U.S.
“Orders already placed”
Denormandie pledged to push for the French and German policies to become established as European Union law. This would in turn cut off European markets for nations, including the U.S., that continue to allow chick maceration or gassing.
Only Ukraine has sold more eggs to European Union nations in recent years than the U.S., while only Japan, Mexico, and Canada bought more eggs from the U.S. than the combined purchases by the 28 European Union member nations.
Acquiring and using the equipment that France and Germany will use to detect the sex of chicks before they hatch is expected to add about one euro cent to the price of each box of six eggs.
That would be equivalent to a price increase of about three cents per dozen eggs sold in the U.S., where eggs are typically sold (and consumed) by the dozen or two dozen, rather than by the half dozen.
Said Denormandie, “Given the orders already placed,” with the help of $11.8 million in government subsidies, “the machines will be installed for two-thirds of production in France by the end of the first quarter of 2022.”
Within the U.S., momentum toward replacing traditional “chick sexing” with technological alternatives is driven by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, created by the 2014 Farm Bill, working in partnership with the grant-making advisory organization Open Philanthropy.
The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and Open Philanthropy together announced the Egg-Tech Prize in 2019 to spur research and development of alternatives to traditional “chick sexing.”
Explains the Egg-Tech Prize web site, “If egg hatcheries had technology that determined the egg’s sex on the day it is laid, over 6 billion male eggs could be used for food, animal feed or vaccine production. Additionally, eggs are incubated for 21 da ys before they hatch. This technology could vastly reduce the cost and carbon footprint of incubating layer eggs, while freeing up space for the incubation of female eggs–– increasing the efficiency of production. Estimates suggest that preventing male chick culling would save the egg industry approximately $500 million from wasted eggs and labor.”
And this is saying nothing of the savings in human lives wasted by the frequent descent of egg sexing workers into drug and alcohol addiction, crime, and early death.
U.S. falling behind
The initial phase of the Egg-Tech Prize competition awarded six grants to fund developing the necessary technology to compete for the Prize.
The second phase, now underway, requires contestants to “develop and validate a working prototype” suitable for actual use in routine egg production.
The Egg-Tech Prize competition may develop an “ovo-sexing” method, as “chick sexing” before chicks hatch is called, that is in some manner superior to the methods already introduced in Europe.
However, the relatively slow U.S. research and development time frame ensures that U.S. producers will remain disadvantaged in the international marketplace for years to come, while American workers go on sexing chicks by the traditional method.
Promise broken with the egg shells
Recently recalled Rome-based writer Jonathan Moens for The Atlantic, “Nearly five years ago, United Egg Producers, an agricultural cooperative whose members are responsible for producing more than 90% of all commercial eggs in the U.S., released a statement pledging to eliminate chick culling by 2020, or as soon as a ‘commercially available and economically feasible’ technology became accessible.
“That pledge was negotiated with the Humane League, an animal-rights nonprofit organization,” Moens continued.
“But 2020 has come and gone, and although United Egg Producers’ pledge wasn’t legally binding, some egg-industry leaders and scientists say there is little sign that the industry is anywhere near phasing in cull-free technologies that could still meet the colossal supply of more than 100 billion eggs produced every year in the U.S.
“Ovo-sexing is already being used in Europe,” Moens reminded, “though some in the U.S. say that [the European method], which involves creating a tiny hole in the eggshell with a laser, is subpar, because it increases the risk of contamination. European developers dispute this, however, and as of this year, cull-free eggs are available in thousands of supermarkets in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France, with only modest additional costs to consumers and hatcheries.”
No more treating lives as trash
The European ovo-sexing method “can sort chicks on the ninth day of development, when chick embryos are “exceptionally unlikely” to experience any sensation whatsoever,” Moens mentioned.
But some of the ovo-sexing methods under investigation in the Egg-Tech Prize competition promise to produce results as early as six days after an egg is laid.
Those results will neither directly nor entirely do away with cockfighting, corruption, drug abuse, and fatal dog attacks in Appalachia. Indeed, mechanical ovo-sexing may put thousands of manual chick sexers out of work. Yet this may be a plus in itself, if unemployed former chick sexers are encouraged to pursue the education and skill sets they need to find better jobs.
Meanwhile, mechanical ovo-sexing may go a long way toward reducing the pervasive attitude throughout Appalachia that life is cheap, and that workers as well as animals are expendable––an attitude that workers themselves absorb, often treating themselves as trash.