By Gretchen Vogel
In hundreds of grocery stores here, 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.
Modern laying hens have been bred to produce huge numbers of eggs, but their brothers are useless. They don’t put on weight fast enough to be raised for meat. So hatchery workers—specialized “sexers”—sort day-old chicks by hand, squeezing open their anal vents for a sign of their sex. Females are sold to farms. Males—roughly 7 billion per year worldwide, according to industry estimates—are fed into a shredder or gassed.
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. The United Egg Producers, a U.S. cooperative, says it wants to be cull-free by 2020, and the German government has said it will outlaw the practice. “Everyone wants the same thing, and the right piece of technology could solve this right now,” says Timothy Kurt, scientific program director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in Washington, D.C.
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