A Scientist Has Figured Out How to Determine Chickens’ Sex Before They Hatch

A German scientist has found a method of determining what sex an egg embryo will become, three days after it has been laid. Male embryos can be destroyed painlessly, ending the egg industry’s culling of “useless” male chicks.

Jessica Scott-Reid

Photo via Flickr user John Loo

A veterinarian from Germany has developed a method to determine the sex of chickens before they hatch. Cue a collective sigh of relief from all the egg-eating vegetarians and humane meat eaters.

Eggs have long been an area of contention in the animal welfare world and, more recently, within the ethical eating movement. Though eating factory-farmed eggs doesn't directly parley into animal murder, there is indirect suffering just a few small steps away.

Over half of the world's egg-laying hens and 90 percent in the US spend their lives in what are known as barren battery cages: wire enclosures that provide the living space of about a piece of paper and nothing else. Battery hens are unable to move or exhibit natural behaviours, and are routinely de-beaked to prevent cannibalism caused by the confinement.

Once they are no longer able to produce our favourite breakfast food, hens are killed, years before they would die naturally. And although barren battery cages were banned in the EU in 2012, replaced by "enriched" battery cages, with facilities for nesting and perching, the RSPCA says these cages still don't meet the full needs of birds.

READ MORE: Indonesia's Jet-Black Chickens Are the Dark Side of Poultry

That being said, eggs are also undeniably delicious and nutritious, and a major staple of the Western diet. Ethical (although, not quite ethical enough to go full vegan) eaters have found ways to appease egg-eating guilt by forking over extra dough for happy eggs, aka "organic," "free-range," cage-free," or "barn-raised."

Natural harmony is once again restored.

Except, there is another, lesser-known aspect of the egg industry that even buying cage-free can't make right: the systematic culling of hundreds of millions of useless, tasteless male chicks each year (and by culling, they mean suffocating or grinding alive). Animal rights folks tell us that for every egg-laying hen, there is a dead baby rooster back at the hatchery.

That ain't cool, and it's certainly not ethical.

But that's where German innovator Dr. Maria-Elisabeth Krautwald-Junghanns comes in, swooping in to save us all from a lifetime of ordering oatmeal over omelets.

There is another, lesser-known aspect of the egg industry that even buying cage-free can't make right: the systematic culling of hundreds of millions of useless, tasteless male chicks each year (and by culling, they mean suffocating or grinding alive).

Dr. Krautwald-Junghanns has developed a breakthrough method of chicken sexing, which can now be done at the embryonic stage. By using what is described as a near-infrared Raman spectroscopy, certain blood vessels can be detected within the embryo to determine what sex it will become. The whole process takes about ten seconds and can be carried out three days after the egg is laid, at which stage an embryo's central nervous system is not yet active, thus no pain is experienced upon being destroyed.


So what will this all mean for the ethical food movement? Are eggs destined to become the go-to guilt-free protein source for vegetarians and humane meat eaters?

Andrew Dengue, owner and head chef at London's Michelin-recommended vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black, sees the more-ethical product as a logical option for his business.

"Obviously any system which removes the process for needless slaughtering of an animal is a positive move", he says, and also speculates that the process would likely save the food industry time and money.

Cookbook author, Eddie Shepherd is another vegetarian chef interested in working with eggs produced using Krautwald-Junghanns' method.

"If this new method creates a more humane, ethical process, then I will look to buy my eggs from someone incorporating these methods," he says. "It would give me another criteria to look for when I'm sourcing eggs, as well as them being free-range and organic."

READ MORE: Do Bigger Chicken Cages Do More Harm Than Good?

But, as Reto Frei, co-founder of the Swiss-British vegan and vegetarian restaurant chain, Tibits explains, although this new method may make egg production more ethical, "it does not solve the mass production approach of the industry. And of course, it does not convert a vegan to eating eggs." Frei does however, plan to keep an eye on the developing technology.

Not surprisingly, PETA echoes Frei's statement, telling MUNCHIES: "Reports that countless male chicks could potentially be spared the horrors of being thrown into high-speed grinders called 'macerators' at birth—because they can't lay eggs and are therefore deemed 'unprofitable'—would be celebrated by animal campaigners if it were not for the depressing fact that this practice is only one of the egg industry's many dirty secrets."

Germany's food and agricultural minister, Christian Schmidt, says he is aiming to have the new method operating nationwide by 2017, and wants the country to be a "pioneer for better animal welfare in egg production in Europe." Scientists are starting work as soon as next month, developing the technology necessary to apply it to commercial operations.

As for the UK, only time will tell if farmers and lawmakers will take interest in the new method. Ailsa Logan, spokesperson for the British Poultry Council says, "Though promising, this work is still at research stage."

In the end, if simply being more ethical is enough to whet our appetites, then this new method of egg production may eventually make it easier for ethical eaters to both sleep at night, and enjoy our breakfast in the morning.