Germany Wants to Ban the Mass Culling of Male Chicks

A new law would require hatcheries to determine a bird's sex while the egg is still incubating.

Chicks in poultry barn.
Christopher Kimmel / Getty Images

Germany has drafted a law that would end the mass culling of male chicks by 2022. In what agriculture minister Julia Klöckner has called "a significant step forward for animal welfare," the law would require hatcheries to determine a bird's sex while the egg is still incubating, rather than waiting for it to hatch. This would allow the hatcheries to discard male eggs and turn them into high-protein animal feed, which is considered more humane than culling live chicks.

Approximately 45 million baby male chicks are killed every year in Germany alone, out of an estimated 7 billion globally. These are typically shredded or gassed because they have little value for the poultry market. They cannot lay eggs and they are not considered desirable for meat, as they do not fatten as quickly as birds bred for meat production do. 

Germany is not the only country culling male chicks in this way; Switzerland has banned shredding but still allows gassing, and a 2009 EU directive said gassing is acceptable as long as a chick is less than 72 hours old. France, however, is aligned with Germany in striving to eliminate male chick culling by the end of 2021, based on a joint commitment made in January 2020.

The process by which male eggs are identified is called Seleggt. It was developed by German scientists and uses a laser to cut a non-invasive, 0.3-mm hole in the egg's shell between the 8th and 10th days of incubation. (German hatcheries will be required to do it between the 9th and 14th days.) A drop of fluid is extracted and tested for a hormone (estrone sulphate) that would indicate a female chick. From Seleggt's website

"The male hatching eggs are processed into high-quality feed and the female hatching eggs are returned to the incubator. The minuscule hole created by the laser does not need to be sealed as the inner membrane reseals on its own. Consequently, only female chicks hatch on the 21st day of the incubation."

It sounds like a good idea, but not everyone is pleased with the draft law. Friedrich-Otto Ripke, president of the Central Association of the German Poultry Industry, told the Berliner Zeitung that the process is expensive and complicated, and that the infrastructure simply isn't there to test and process every egg in the country. He thinks 15 million could be tested at most by next year, just a third of what the country produces.

There is fear of competition from hatcheries outside of Germany, where regulations remain more lax. The German Poultry Association told the Guardian that this could "lead to 'immense competitive disadvantages' for German poultry farmers. The association said it welcomed the phasing out of chick culling but saw 'serious shortcomings' in the draft law, including that it would not apply anywhere else in Europe."

Treehugger reached out to Kipster, a groundbreaking chicken farm in the Netherlands that prides itself on selling "carbon-neutral" eggs and adhering to high standards of animal welfare. Kipster does not cull male chicks, but rather raises them for food. Founder Ruud Zanders shared some concerns about the new German approach (edited for clarity):

"Looking into the egg to avoid giving birth to male chicks is a great alternative; however, it still kills the embryo. This is the same as a cockerel being born, but a little earlier. Even embryos already have feelings. If you could look inside the egg [during the first] three days of incubation at the latest and determine the gender, then it would be different."

Zanders took issue with the perspective of male chicks being useless. "Why would you allow a broiler to be born and not utilize a cockerel?" His own farm takes the approach that "you might as well let the cockerel be born, give it the best possible life and then still eat it." Only if Seleggt technology allowed him to determine gender within the egg's first three days would it become a real option for Kipster Farm.

The Humane Society International (HSI) sees the move as a no-brainer. Sylvie Kremerskothen Gleason, director of HSI Germany, told Treehugger that the "culling of baby chicks in the egg industry has for too long been a very ugly, largely hidden practice." She continued:

"It’s a huge moral issue not simply in terms of the suffering of these chicks, but also because it highlights animal agriculture’s rapacious breeding and oversupply of animals. ​As one of the main producers of eggs in the EU, Germany has a major responsibility in this area. News that Germany aims to ban the killing of day-old male chicks from 2022 is extremely welcome, and will hopefully inspire other countries to follow suit."

The long-term goal is for testing to happen even earlier in the egg's incubation, but testing capacity for that does not currently exist. The draft law wants it in place by 2024.

The draft law still has to pass through the lower House of Parliament, the Bundestag, but there appears to be plenty of public support for it. HSI's Kremerskothen Gleason said, "It is no coincidence that this humane solution is being adopted at a time when interest in plant-based animal-free foods is booming... These steps – ending the mass grinding of male chicks and moving toward plant-based ingredients in products that have long required eggs – are indicators of how innovation driven by animal welfare sensibilities is helping to start critical conversations in the food industry."