Analysis: Hatching a new approach

New technology is promising to change practices in hatcheries, but does it offer a silver bullet?

By Michael Barker

Sometimes a new technology comes along where the benefits seem clear and compelling. Detecting the sex of a chick before it hatches hasn’t previously been possible. But now the industry may finally be drawing close to a solution as manufacturers across the world race to commercialise technology that could remove the need to dispose of male chicks, and have commercial benefits related to a reduced need for labour and less handling needed immediately after hatching. From the Netherlands and Germany to Canada and New Zealand, new scientific approaches are claiming success in addressing an issue that could transform the egg production sector.

One of the most promising new developments was unveiled in Germany in November, when Dutch firm HatchTech revealed it was partnering with German supermarket group Rewe and the University of Leipzig to develop a market-ready solution for gender identification in hatching eggs. Under the €5 million project, dubbed Seleggt, a non-invasive laser is used to burn into the hatching egg shell, from where a fluid is extracted and analysed to determine the gender of the chick.

In the coming year, customers of Rewe and its Penny chain will be offered the chance to buy eggs produced under the new system. For a small but significant minority of consumers, this is an issue they’re prepared to shout about. “Concerned customers can now actively help to put an end to the practice of male chick culling through their shopping behaviour,” says Jan Kunath, deputy chief executive of Rewe Group. “I strongly believe that the extra price of a few cents per egg carton is well invested.” 

So should we expect such technology to appear in Britain in the near future? It is certainly a development that both the Government and industry are following closely. A Defra spokesman told Poultry Business: “We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and are always looking at ways to enhance our position as a global leader. We are monitoring progress with this technology and whether it can be applied commercially. We always take a science-based approach when making these decisions and our priority is safeguarding health and the environment.”

The industry itself is taking a keen interest too. Patrick Hook, director at leading independent hatchery PD Hook, says that while the new Seleggt technology is mainly focused on layers and therefore won’t directly affect his business, there are some clear benefits to the wider industry. “We currently successfully utilise all broiler breeder byproducts, so for us it’s not the case of culling dayold male chicks like the layer industry,” he points out. “However it could improve seven-day mortality and chick quality on day-old broiler breeders, due to reduced chick processing at a day old, as there will not be a need to vent sex. It will also help with labour, as there are big difficulties in recruiting and training highly skilled vent sexers.” Not everyone is confident the technology will offer a silver bullet though. Phil Slaney, spokesman for the British Egg Industry Council, says that this kind of approach has been mooted for some time, but despite “exciting developments” in the field there are doubts in the UK as to whether it is as commercially viable as it sounds.

Underlining the British industry’s commitment to eliminate the need for disposal of male day-old chicks, he explains that a number of active projects are under way to find a long-term solution, including the research in Germany and a Canadian initiative focused on sexing hatching eggs using camera technology before they are incubated. Retail experts have questioned whether supermarkets will want to flag up a range of eggs that may shine unwanted attention on their other lines – and that in itself creates something of a public relations dilemma.

David Hughes, emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College London, welcomes the introduction of new technology but points out that most consumers are probably unaware of the fate of day-old male chicks in the first place. In spite of the delicate PR tightrope, the direction of travel seems clear. In these days where transparent and animal-sensitive farming is at the top of the agenda, it seems a question of when, not if, new technology comes in to change a convention borne out of necessity and practicality rather than choice.

HOW TECHNOLOGY FIRMS ARE RACING TO CHALLENGE THE CURRENT SYSTEM

The current approach (UK) In the UK, disposal of male chicks is carried out by exposure to argon, which BEIC explains is quick and painless and follows a Code of Practice approved by the Humane Slaughter Association and monitored by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). UK pullet hatcheries are members of the RSPCA Assured Scheme and are monitored independently by the RSPCA, as well as by Defra/APHA. The male chicks, previously used for poultry meat, are instead now used as a source of food for other species such as reptiles and birds of prey.

Seleggt (Germany) Seleggt is a joint venture between Dutch firm HatchTech and German supermarket group Rewe, backed by funding from the German government. In the Seleggt process, a laser is used to burn a hole of no more than 0.3mm into the hatching egg shell. Afterwards, a small amount of fluid is extracted through a non-invasive procedure, leaving the interior of the hatching egg untouched and safe. Through a change in colour, a marker indicates whether the sex-specific hormone estrone sulphate can be detected in the hatching egg. If detected, it shows a female chick is developing in the hatching egg – consequently, only female chicks hatch on the 21st day of incubation. No estrone sulphate indicates a male hatching egg, which is separated and processed into high quality animal feed.

In Ovo (Netherlands) Dutch biotech company In Ovo is a spin-off of Leiden University, and founders Wouter Bruins and Wil Stutterheim are in the process of going to market with their method of determining a chick’s sex while still in the egg. In Ovo claims its technique of sexing chickens is capable of determining the sex of an egg within seconds on day nine after fertilisation. The process sees a miniscule hole made in the egg, with no effect on the chicken embryo, and a tiny sample removed. By measuring the presence of a specific biomarker, it is possible to determine whether the embryo is male or female.

Hypereye (Canada) Technology developed by researchers at McGill University and supported by Egg Farms of Ontario is being described as a “game changer” for the Canadian industry. Hypereye is an egg-scanning system that is said to be capable of identifying both the gender and fertility of as many as 50,000 day-old chicks per hour, with prototypes currently being tested on Canadian hatcheries to bring the system up to commercial scale. Hypereye works with hyperspectral imaging, and its backers claim it will slash incubation costs due to the fact there will no longer be a need to incubate infertile and male eggs.

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