When you think of humanely-sourced eggs, you may picture hens that are cage free. Think smaller.
During the past decade, a growing number of consumers have become aware that the quest for efficient industrial-scale egg production had led to hens being caged in spaces barely larger than their bodies. By 2014, 95 percent of US eggs were produced this way, with the average hen allocated less space than a sheet of paper. Doing things this way kept egg prices low, but caged hens spent their lives unable to explore, interact, or even stretch their wings, let alone engage in natural behaviors like nesting, foraging, perching, and dust bathing.
People found that troubling and pushed for something better. Now cage free eggs are commonplace—at least 17 percent of US production and growing fast. Most large supermarkets also carry eggs from hens who roam on pasture, supplementing their feed by eating bugs and alfalfa. Humane certifications also ensure that old hens are culled with minimal stress and pain.
But until now, all commercial egg production has relied on sorting female from male chicks right after they hatch and then killing the males. Chickens are bred selectively for eggs or meat, and the male chicks of egg layers aren’t good commercial meat birds. They grow slower, so take up to three times as much feed to produce the same amount of meat as birds that are bred for that purpose. So, the male chicks—globally six billion each year—get sorted onto a conveyor belt that ends in a grinder (seen here). It’s quick and is considered, even by organizations that certify farm animal welfare, to meet cruelty standards. But it’s certainly not something we’d approve for day-old puppies or kittens.
Soon, egg-eaters will have better options because hatcheries themselves will have better options, thanks to pressure from consumers and animal welfare advocates—and thanks to scientists. In Germany, Canada and Australia, researchers are putting the finishing touches on three different processes that will allow producers to sex eggs, perhaps as soon as the day they are laid. In fact, in Germany the first eggs from no-shredder hatcheries just went to grocery stores. Here’s how it works:
On the eighth or ninth day of incubation, a .3mm hole is drilled in the egg using a pinpoint laser and air pressure forces out a tiny drop of liquid. This doesn’t harm the egg. The liquid is then put into a solution similar to a pregnancy test that turns blue for male and white for female. The test is 98.5 percent accurate and takes one second. Male eggs get used as high-protein animal feed, and females are returned to the incubator where they hatch 21 days later and are sold by the hatchery to egg operations.
Eggs from this process, in cartons tagged with a green Respeggt label, went on sale in November at 223 Rewe and Penny supermarkets in Berlin. By the end of the year, the chain expects to sell to sell them in 5500 stores nationwide.
Researchers at McGill University, with funding from the Egg Growers of Ontario, have developed a process that lets them sex eggs on the day that they are laid, which would potentially allow the fertilized male eggs to be sold for feed or other purposes like collagen for cosmetics. Besides eliminating the chick shredders, this would create a new revenue stream from roughly half the eggs produced by the hatcheries.
The technology, called HyperEye, uses hyper-spectral imaging to detect bands of light that correspond to sex and also reveal eggs that didn’t get fertilized. So far it has only been proven to work in the laboratory. To be commercially viable, the process will need to be honed to near 99 percent accuracy using machinery that can process 20,000 eggs in an hour. The good news is that the Government of Canada just contributed $844,000 to move that research forward. If everything goes well, HyperEye technology will be on the market by 2020.
If all of this sounds positively futuristic, geneticists at Australia’s natural science agency, CSIRO, have taken things even farther in that direction. Their idea: Use CRISPR to splice a sea anemone gene into the chicken equivalent of a Y chromosome. The gene makes the eggs glow red under laser light, so that male eggs, again, can be separated out on the day they are laid.
Some consumers may balk at the idea of eggs from GMO chickens, but geneticist Mark Tizard points out that the spliced gene won’t actually be in the eggs that go to the supermarket, because commercial supermarket eggs are unfertilized. Hence, no male chromosome. He thinks this may allow anyone commercializing the technology to bypass the process of getting a GMO approved for human consumption, which can take decades. But he also pushes back at GMO opponents. “The choice is: Do you want to continue to cull male chicks?” asks Tizard. “Or do you want to have a process in which biotechnology is put in and taken out, with nothing changed in the food product that you go and collect at the supermarket?”
United Egg Producers, which represents more than 90 percent of the eggs sold in the U.S., committed in 2016 to end chick culling by 2020. Although they are unlikely to meet that deadline, the change is coming. If a spliced gene ends up being the best way to keep chicks from getting shredded, GMO opponents who also care about animal welfare may face an interesting choice. Fortunately for them, credible plant-based egg substitutes are happening. Then again, interesting choices are the whole story here: Soon we all will be facing more and better options when we head to the supermarket. And that’s exciting.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.