Each year more than seven billion fluffy little yellow chicks worldwide are tossed into a grinder or gassed to death less than 24 hours after hatching because they are of no use to egg producers.
Now, an Israeli startup, eggXYt, has developed technology that can detect their gender before hatching, saving the egg industry nearly $2 billion per year and eliminating the senseless killing.
“These birds will be hatched to their death. This a man-made problem which started hundreds of years ago when humans started selecting eggs for consumption,” says Yehuda Elram, co-founder and CEO of eggXYt.
The killing of male chicks, known as chick culling, is standard practice in all industrialized hatcheries and has haunted animal rights organizations and egg producers for many years, said Elram.
Farmers have been artificially boosting the growth of two kinds of chickens, the so-called “broilers” and “layers.” The broilers are chickens that can grow to 2.5 kilos (5.5 pounds) and are meant to be consumed as meat because of their size. Layer chickens grow to only 400 grams (1 pound), and female layers produce 100 more eggs each year than do broilers.
While female layer chickens are valuable to egg producers because they can lay many eggs over a lifetime, male layer chicks don’t produce eggs nor do they have enough meat on their bodies for eating. So theyare killed immediately after hatching, explained Elram.
Elram, the grandchild of chicken farmers, had been practicing law for more than 20 years when the idea came to him and his good friend Dani Offen, a scientist who is co-founder and chief scientific officer of eggXYt, to distinguish between the eggs using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool.
CRISPR allows scientists to insert a detectable biomarker into the chicken’s DNA which helps mark the gender of the eggs without any side effects, said Elram.
Once the eggs are laid and hatched, they are sent through a scanner with an optical sensor that identifies the male eggs by giving off a yellow fluorescent glow. These male eggs could be salvaged and consumed by humans or used as protein for other food products, said Elram.
EggXYt, currently in proof of concept phase, has received several grants and awards from the Israel Innovation Authority, MassChallenge, the European Commission, the Green Impact Summit and TechCrunch Disrupt. It expects to start a pilot in early 2019.
To those who have reservations about the long-term impact of modifying the DNA of hens, Elram says that things need to be “measured by impact and safety.”
“What we are doing is 100 percent safe. A similar technology has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in case of salmon which is being sold in North America,” said Elram.
In order to ease pressure caused by heavy fishing of wild salmon populations, the FDA approved the use of genetically modified salmon which require less food and can grow to full size in 18 months rather than three years, in late 2015.
The outcome, in this case of the chickens, is very slightly genetically edited chicken, which Elram said is a small price to pay when you consider the broader ethical issues related to male culling.
More than 18 months ago, the United Egg Producers negotiated an agreement with the Humane Society of the United States to find a solution to stop the senseless killing of male chicks by 2020. Unilever, the world’s third-largest consumer goods producer which buys more than 350 million eggs each year in the US alone for brands like Best Foods, Hellmann’s, Ben & Jerry’s and Slim-Fast, launched a major drive to end male chick culling more than three years ago. However, to date, no viable solution has been approved by the FDA or governing bodies in other countries to solve the problem.