Nearly 90 per cent of consumers who took part in a study expressed opposition to the egg industry practice of killing day-old male chicks.
The figure was revealed to delegates at the International Egg Commission (IEC) conference in Vienna in April by Dr Ferry Leenstra of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Dr Leenstra, who was outlining the results of work with consumer focus groups, said that 37 per cent of the 1,200 people who took part in the sample described the practice as "really bad." Another 51 per cent agreed with the view that killing day-old chicks was "not fine." In all, some 88 per cent of those expressing an opinion were opposed to the killing.
Male chicks are culled at one day old because they are unsuitable for either egg or meat production. Dr Leenstra said that the practice had become common since 1950, when the industry had developed the ability to sex chicks at one day old and since the egg and broiler industries had become specialised. The practice of killing day-old chicks has come under greater scrutiny recently, with welfare groups objecting to it and one state in Germany - North-Rhine Westphalia - announcing that it will be outlawed. The neighbouring state of Niedersachsen is considering doing the same and it is feared that bans could well spread throughout Germany over a relatively short period of time. However, at the moment, there is no obvious solution to the problem.
Professor Rudolph Preisinger, managing director and chief geneticist at Lohmann Tierzucht, said at the IEC conference that the industry could produce a dual purpose chicken, but he said, "Dual purpose hampers egg productivity." He said that if chickens were selected for higher egg productivity, they would have a lean breast. And he said that in Europe and North America breast meat was the part of a broiler on which the market concentrated. He said countries in Asia that preferred leg meat accounted for only a small percentage of the overall market.
Dr Leenstra told delegates that her survey results followed focus group work with consumers. She said that 57 per cent of those they spoke to did not previously know that the practice existed. Following the consultation, 58 per cent said that they would like the industry to develop an alternative.
A number of alternatives were discussed with the consumers - the possibility of producing a dual purpose chicken, making use of environmental factors to reduce the number of male chicks and the possible use of genetic modification. They also discussed the possibility of identifying the sex of the chick whilst it was still in the egg. As we reported in the Ranger recently, geneticists at Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Australia have been working on producing chickens that have been genetically modified with a green fluroescent protein that will allow the sex of the developing embryo to be determined inside the egg. The protein is originally found in jellyfish and glows green under ultraviolet light. Initial work has, apparently, proved successful and the scientists are intending to do further research on developing the technique, although the fact that the protein comes from a jellyfish would mean that the chicken had been genetically modified.
Professor Preisinger told IEC delegates that Lohmann Tierzucht had been running a number of programmes to develop ways of determining the sex of a chick whilst it was still in the egg. The work was promising but the technique was not wholly accurate. He said that the company had been able to achieve 98 per cent accuracy. He said that using the technique would increase the price of a day-old chick by 50 cents and there would still be an ethical dilemma involved in destroying male embryos in the egg. He questioned whether consumers would find this acceptable.
The professor said that dual purpose chickens were currently available, but the market would have to be prepared to accept fewer eggs, smaller eggs
that were paler in colour. He said that a dual purpose bird would produce 250 eggs
at 68 weeks compared with 290 eggs
produced by a specialist layer. There would be a drop in persistency and there would be an increase in feed costs. For the meat market, a dual purpose bird would produce three per cent less breast meat at slaughter than a bird bred specially for the broiler market.
Dr Leenstra said that consumers who took part in Wageningen University's study had been asked to indicate what they would prefer the industry to do. The highest number - 25 per cent - said that they would like the industry to be able to check inside the freshly laid egg. Some 24 per cent opted for a dual purpose chicken, 14 per cent preferred the use of environmental measures to reduce the number of male chicks and 10 per cent voted for the use of GM. A total of 14 per cent decided after discussing the issue that they would prefer the current practice to continue.
Those who took part in the study were also asked about the cost they would be prepared to pay for the alternative solutions. For a dual purpose chicken, 40 per cent said they would be prepared to pay double the price. Half of the consumers said they would accept a small price increase and 10 per cent said they would not want to pay more. When asked about the other alternatives, 20 per cent said they would pay double the price, 65 per cent said a little more and 15 per cent said no more.