In India, every year more than 180 million male chicks end up in meat grinders seconds after they are hatched, as they are of no use to the egg industry. N G Jayasimha, managing director of animal rights group Humane Society International (HSI) India, says some poultry firms stuff the chicks in plastic bags so that they are suffocated to death.
Culling of male chicks or maceration is a common practice in the poultry industry the world over. HSI said about half the eggs that are hatched are male and they are killed in no time.
The egg industry in India is growing at the rate of 8-12 per cent yearly. India is the third largest egg producer.
To end this inhuman practice, animal rights groups and corporates are engaging with stakeholders to bring out workable solutions. Global food giant Unilever recently announced that it is working on steps by involving egg producers, animal rights groups and research and development companies to prevent the practice.
A Unilever spokesperson told Business Standard: "We have also committed to providing funding and expertise for research and introduction of alternative methods such as in-ovo gender identification (sexing) of eggs. This new technology offers the potential to eliminate the hatching and culling of male chicks."
Unilever is the first and only major egg buyer to take a public stance against maceration.
Jayasimha said his company is helping to drive technological advancements in the egg industry. "Since the industry leaders are pioneering this effort, we are sure that in a couple of years, they would be able to develop a complete and scalable model to end this practice."
The reproductive system of the female chicken is such that it doesn't need a male to produce eggs. From the time it is six months old, the hen starts laying eggs. Only if an egg has to be fertilised, a cock or rooster is needed. The poultry industry consists of broilers and egg layers. The former are raised for meat production, while the latter are used for egg production.
In India, there are about seven large organised players in the poultry/egg production space. Officials said there are several unorganised companies, where the conditions are even worse.
Jayasimha said HSI is working with hotels around the world and also with organisations to reduce consumption of eggs and to buy refined products that do not involve killing of male chicks. He said the poultry industry should also become aware that now there is greater customer consciousness about such practices.
Some educational institutions in Asia Pacific are engaged in research on how to determine the sex of the chick at the egg stage. For this, methods, including using gel-based technology to mark the hen before eggs are laid, are being tested.
Poultry companies are also game for using technology to identify the gender of the chick if it is economical.
"We do not wish to purposely kill them, but that is part of the commercial production process. While we do not know how expensive the technology would be, if it is viable to be used in factories we would consider it," said an executive of a Tamil Nadu-based poultry company. Most leading poultry firms refused to comment on the issue.