A long-time item on the egg industry’s wish list is the ability to determine the sex of a chick embryo long before it hatches. Such technology is key to helping the industry end the grim practice of eliminating unwanted male chics. In Europe, some companies have already introduced “no-kill eggs” ahead of national laws ending the practice by 2022 in France and Germany. U.S. industry stakeholders, however, say those technologies fall short on safety standards.
The current method of discarding unwanted chicks means between 6 and 7 billion are culled every year worldwide, something animal welfare groups have been increasingly pressuring the egg industry to address. The practice is also drawing the attention of more consumers that find it unacceptable, putting more pressure on egg companies that themselves want a more humane alternative. Egg companies are economically incentivized, as well, considering that they are essentially throwing away half their inventory once it hatches with no way to recoup those production costs.
Solutions for ending the practice are focused on identifying the sex of the chick before it hatches, allowing the egg to be discarded before the embryo develops too far. Called “in-ovo sexing,” there are several companies currently working on different methods to do this. Some in Europe use methods that involve creating a minuscule hole in the shell, either via a needle or with a laser, the latter of which is gaining more traction. U.S. egg industry stakeholders, however, say any type of technology that involves puncturing the shell risks contamination, therefore is sub-par.
UEP, whose co-operative members account for more than 90% of U.S. commercial egg production, is engaged with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and its Egg-Tech Prize, which would provide up to $6 million to researchers working on a solution to end chick culling. Tim Kurt, FFAR’s scientific program director says the selection team specifically funded projects that could potentially upend the egg industry. Unfortunately, Kurt says Covid-19 has severely slowed research progress. The Egg-Tech Prizes were announced in November 2019, just ahead of the pandemic outbreak, and they haven’t released any significant updates.
FFAR has awarded close to $2 million so far to six groups for Phase I of the competition. A list of the winners is available HERE. Phase II winners will be selected sometime in 2022 and will be open to anyone, even if they didn’t enter Phase I. During the research for this, I also ran across the below three companies that are using some innovative technology as well. To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t received anything via FFAR and the Egg-Prize.
AAT: German-based Agri Advanced Technologies (AAT) utilizes hyperspectral measurement technology. The egg is illuminated with light from below in a closed chamber. The image of the light passing through is captured by a camera on the other side. Based on the calculated light spectrum, the sex of the embryo can allegedly be determined. It’s already being used commercially by leading French hatchery Hy-Line. However, it currently only works on brown hens at the 15th day of incubation. They are working on a method for white hens as well as a Raman spectroscopic method that could determine gender as early as the fifth day of incubation. Learn more HERE.
eggXYt: Built using CRISPR, this Israeli ag-tech startup says it can edit the genes of chickens to make them lay sex-detectable eggs. The biomarker is able to be picked up by a scanner, which then mechanically sorts the eggs based on the presence of the biomarker. Female eggs are unaffected by the edit. Meaning, when those eggs hatch and eventually become layers, they are biologically identical to non-edited hens. What’s more, eggXYt’s technology serves as a gatekeeper to keep male eggs from entering hatcheries to begin with as the biomarker is detectable immediately. Learn more HERE.
Soos: Another Israeli startup, Soos’s technology is not a sex detection tool at all. Rather, it allegedly can transform genetic males into functioning females. They do this through sound vibration and customized incubation cell environmental conditions controlled by artificial intelligence-driven software. So far, they only report a 60% female hatching rate, though. The Soos website is HERE.