Sex identification technology is expanding fast across Europe, transforming the way the egg industry works.
There are now several firms offering services that detect whether an egg contains a male or female chick. It enables hatcheries to incubate only the females, which will go on to be laying hens, and means male chicks do not have to be culled shortly after they hatch.
Male chick culling is a growing issue for the industry. Some consumers object and new laws are being brought forward in several markets to ban the practice. In Germany, male chick culling became illegal in January this year, following a push by NGOs that brought it squarely into the public consciousness.
France has also banned chick culling and Italy will make it illegal in 2026. There are no such plans within the UK but as has been the case with the Better Chicken Commitment in the broiler sector, change can happen fast, with significant and costly implications.
The Respeggt Group is one of the firms offering sex detection in-ovo. Last year, its technology – called Seleggt – was installed at the biggest laying hen hatchery in Europe, Verbeek, in the Netherlands. The hatchery is a major source of laying hens for the German market.
Packing centres now have the option of ordering Novogen and other breeds of chicks that are ‘free of chick culling’. The Respeggt Group also has its own Seleggt system at its own hatchery in Barnevelt, also in the Netherlands.
The technology works by taking a small sample of fluid from each egg and analysing it for hormones on day nine of incubation. This confirms the sex of the chick inside. The females are put back into the incubator and the eggs containing males are made into animal feed.
Kristin Holler is head of sales at Seleggt and told Poultry Business demand was growing rapidly. By the end of 2022, six systems will be in use in countries around Europe. Every machine has a capacity of 80,000 hatched respeggt laying hens per week.
The Seleggt business model is built around licensing, rather than selling machines. This means the company places its machines into hatcheries, then carries out the sex detection service on behalf of the company. “We have our supply chain team and they will check that the respeggt chicks are not mixed with conventional chicks,” she says.
The packer pays a license fee of E3.30 per hen that is delivered to their producers. “We don’t take a license for the consumer egg, we take it for the laying hen,” says Holler. “Then the retailer decides how much it wants to increase the price per egg.” The packer and retailer can then market the eggs in this way to consumers if they wish, using a heart shaped label and the Respeggt logo.
The new law in Germany has had a big impact in just a few months, says Holler. “The packing centres have no other choice than delivering free of chick culling eggs to the supermarkets.”
Naturally, this has had a knock-on effect on consumer prices. In Germany, eggs have risen in price by roughly 2c per egg, says Holler.
Although the law only specifies a ban on male chick culling within Germany and doesn’t ban imports of eggs from other countries that do cull male chicks, all the major retailers have opted to enforce an outright ban.
This gives producers and packers a limited number of choices. They can source their hens from hatcheries that have a sex selection machine; they can rear the males, known as ‘brother hens’; or they can exit the market altogether.
“Brother fattening is something the packing centres don’t want, due to high costs of feed,” says Holler. “They are saying we can’t afford it right now. Many farmers have done brother hen fattening until now, but now more are switching to gender identification, but we can’t fulfil every order right now.”
So demand is growing. And not just in countries where the law has changed. One UK packer, which does not wish to be named, has bought some hens that have gone through the Seleggt process. According to Holler, “they want to be the first” to launch a product marketed on its chick cull free credentials.
Holler says this is how the market started to change in other countries. “Maybe five years ago or more, German consumers did not know male chicks are culled. I think in the UK it is the same.
“Before the law came in, we had many NGOs which placed this topic in the news. What you can for sure know is there are some Seleggt chicks in the UK market, just a few. This is how it starts. This is how we saw it in the Netherlands. They started to change one product, then they do a lot of advertising, otherwise the consumer does not understand the added value of the product. There is a match of many things that have to happen together.”
Martijn Haarman, managing director of Respeggt Group believes things are only moving in one direction. “The future of the egg industry is ‘Free of Chick Culling’”, he said last year. He may well be right. It is currently unclear how the market will develop in the UK and in other markets where the practice remains legal. But as the German and French markets have shown, change can happen rapidly, and packers should be prepared.
How does the technology work?
- The sex of the chick inside the egg is identified at day nine of incubation.
- The machine shines light on each egg to detect the blood vessels
- The machine calculates the optimal location for a hole to be made in the eggshell
- A laser creates a 0.3mm wide hold in the eggshell
- Liquid is extracted via a pipette attached to a robot arm
- Wax is used to close the hole
- The liquid is taken to a lab within the hatchery
- The liquid reacts with a marker and shows a colour change to indicate male or female hormones
- A robot sorts the males from the females
- Females are returned to the incubators and hatch as normal