Each year up to 300 million male chicks in the U.S. are culled almost immediately after hatching by the egg and meat industries. This controversial practice occurs in hatcheries around the world, resulting in the death of an estimated 6 billion to 7 billion day-old birds.
Animal protection groups have opposed the practice for decades, yet for now, the U.S. egg industry lags behind European nations in taking the first steps to change how it treats male chicks. There are some encouraging signs of progress however, as science offers promising alternatives.
What Is Culling a Chicken?
Chick culling refers to the selective lethal removal of animals from a given population. In animal agriculture, including the chicken industry, the term is used to describe the killing of farmed animals earlier than the animals would have been slaughtered for human consumption, using various methods.
Culling is done for multiple reasons, including in the cases of sick and injured chickens deemed unfit for human consumption and those with traits that are considered undesirable, as well as in attempts to control outbreaks of disease such as avian influenza.
Male chicks, however, are culled the same day the birds are born into hatcheries, considered to be surplus animals. Workers called chicken sexers sort through the birds to determine their sex by squeezing out their anal vents in order to examine their genitalia. It is not always done accurately and must happen very quickly as birds continue to move down the line.
Are Baby Chickens Killed for Food?
Chickens, like most farmed animals, are no longer considered babies when they are slaughtered for human consumption, but they are slaughtered at a very young age.
For chickens raised in the poultry industry, that age is around 4 to 6 weeks old. Starting their short lives in hatcheries, chickens are then sent to grow-out farms where they will quickly reach their target market weight, before they are ultimately transported in crates, sometimes over long distances and in extreme weather conditions, to slaughterhouses.
Some birds, though, will not survive their breeding for rapid growth or the conditions on factory farms long enough to reach market weight. These animals will likely be culled while still at the grow-out farm.
Male chicks who are culled after hatching are not used for human consumption, but are sometimes used as food for other animals, including captive reptiles and birds of prey.
Why Aren’t Male Chicks Suitable for Meat?
Male chicks hatched into the egg industry, who cannot lay eggs like female chickens, are considered useless to the chicken meat industry, too. This is because in modern factory farms the broiler chickens raised for meat are from different breeds to the layer hens who produce eggs. Layer hens are not bred to grow unnaturally large and fast like broilers, so these chicks will never produce enough meat to be considered profitable.
How Are Chicks Culled?
Several different methods are used by the egg and poultry industries to cull day-old chickens, many of which have long been opposed by animal advocacy groups and some veterinarians.
Probably the most prolonged method of culling is suffocation, in which birds are left in large plastic bags piled under many other chicks. The animals will struggle to breathe in the crowded bags as they slowly die.
In another, little-known practice, some chicks are shocked with electrical currents. This method of culling is far less common than others.
Electrocution is considered by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to be a humane method of killing companion animals if they are unconscious, but male chicks culled after hatching are fully conscious and not given any pain relief.
Cervical dislocation is among the most commonly used methods of culling in chicken farming, and is done either manually or with the use of equipment. A bird is held by the wings or legs while their neck is quickly and forcefully stretched as the head is pulled away from the body, resulting in the internal separation of the spinal cord and brainstem.
Research shows that cervical dislocation may not cause immediate unconsciousness, and it needs to be performed by a worker with the requisite training who can judge when to use tools and when manual dislocation is appropriate.
Some chicks are culled using strong concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2). In addition to hypercapnia or high CO2 in the bloodstream, the birds die of hypoxia — low oxygen levels in the tissues of the body.
According to a study of chick culling using CO2 published in Poultry Science in 2019, chicks do not immediately lose consciousness and may experience distress before doing so. The researchers add that the birds likely experience a feeling of difficult breathing during this window of consciousness.
In the maceration process, chicks are dropped into a machine called a grinder, where they are shredded alive by rotating metal blades.
This is perhaps the most well-known method of chick culling, due to its common use and due to the upsetting nature of investigative imagery showing newly hatched chicks falling from conveyor belts into the running machinery.
Proponents argue that maceration provides a quick death, as chicks are immediately ground by the blades, although with many chicks being dropped into the machinery at once, it may be hard for producers to know for certain that all birds are instantly killed.
Permitted Methods in the EU
More than 300 million chicks are culled in the European Union annually. Maceration and gassing are the approved methods to cull the male hatchlings.
A study published in 2019 by the European Food Safety Authority identified potential problems with maceration, which is required to induce death instantly. The study states that the method “should result in slurry, rather than recognisable body parts,” and that “it is important to ensure that the speed of the equipment is appropriate” for the number of chicks being dropped into the equipment at once. The researchers note that complications, including slowly rotating blades and “overloading” of the equipment, can result in continued consciousness, pain and fear in birds.
Recommended Methods in the U.S.
As in Europe, the accepted methods of culling newly hatched male chicks in the U.S. are maceration and gassing.
Maceration is the most commonly used method in the U.S. egg industry, considered by some to be more humane than suffocation and gassing due to its quicker pace.
Is Chicken Culling Legal?
In most of the world, the process of culling male chicks after hatching remains perfectly legal. However, there are signs that the practice may be coming to an end.
Where Is Chick Culling Illegal?
France and Germany have become the first countries in the world to announce a ban on the culling of chicks.
While the news has been applauded by animal advocates, it remains uncertain whether a full ban will ever be implemented in France. In early 2023, the French government announced it will permit the culling of over 10 percent of the nation’s male chicks under the premise that chicks produced by white hens are harder to sex before they hatch.
Chick Culling Statistics
Many nations around the world each cull tens or hundreds of millions of day-old chicks each year. Globally, the number soars to as many as 7 billion birds annually.
Vox reports that 10-20 percent of Europe’s hens now come from “cull-free hatcheries” utilizing in-ovo sexing, but notes that researchers believe male chicks could be capable of feeling pain by day seven of incubation. This means that even in-ovo culling may not completely prevent animal suffering.
Campaigns to end the killing of male chicks have been met with industry opposition and a lack of public awareness in the U.K., as has been the case elsewhere around the world. In the U.K., 29 million chicks are culled annually.
How To Stop Chick Culling
While there have been some signs suggesting an end to the practice of culling male chicks, industry reform has been excruciatingly slow.
In 2016, the United Egg Producers, which represents approximately 90 percent of the U.S. egg industry, committed to transition to technology allowing producers to determine the sex of chicks before they hatch, thereby ending the culling of male chicks by preventing their hatching.
However, the trade organization has since walked back this pledge, its CEO stating that it is still working to “find an ethical, economically feasible alternative.” The statement acknowledged that in-ovo sexing is now used to some extent in France and Germany, but claims that “regular reporting to egg industry leaders worldwide indicates that a method that meets the food safety, ethical standards and scalable solutions needed for the United States is not yet available.”
Meanwhile, scientists and animal advocates maintain that technology offers a viable path forward.
What You Can Do
Each year, one of the most profitable industries on the planet continues to cull billions of male chicks — to avoid any cut in earnings. As a result, most of these animals are ground alive or suffocated within hours of emerging from their eggs.
This is the nature of intensive egg and meat production — built to move quickly and efficiently while maximizing profits. Yet there are signs that some nations are acting on the growing public demand for better treatment of farmed animals — and there are ways you can help reduce this practice.
Many animal protection organizations, including Animal Equality and The Humane League, have active campaigns opposing the culling of male chicks. Another effective way to withdraw your support for chick culling is to eat fewer eggs and a more plant-rich and sustainable diet instead.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.