All chickens are not born equal. Some are bred for size — the bigger the better, destined to be roasted and toasted, oiled and broiled, shaked and baked and sliced and diced en route to their ultimate demise at your dinner table.
Others are bred to be lean, mean, egg-laying machines that push out hundreds of eggs each year.
But those scrawny, too-small-to-eat male chickens — about 302 million egg-layers producing over 80 billion eggs a year in the U.S. — have created a problem for egg producers.
In order to maintain the supply of egg-laying hens, some of those 80 billion eggs must be fertilized, incubated and allowed to hatch. But the moment those adorable chicks break out of their eggs, about half of them just aren't useful.
Male chicks born to egg-laying hen breeds are unsuitable for meat, and only a select few are needed to keep the species going. The rest of the males — about 300 million of them nationwide — might be adorable...but they're useless to egg farmers. So they're immediately swept up and gassed, suffocated or, more often than not, tossed into a grinding machine.
It’s called culling, and it's not only upsetting to animal rights activists around the globe— it’s very expensive.
But it wouldn’t have to happen if there were a way of knowing whether that chicken-to-be inside an egg is male or female.
The United Egg Producers announced last summer that it hoped to end culling "by 2020 or as soon as it is commercially available and economically feasible."
And now the problem may be close to a solution.
According to NPR, an Austin, Texas, egg company called Vital Farms, in partnership with an Israeli company called Novatrans, has found a way to determine the sex of an embryo inside an egg by analyzing the chemical makeup of gases that leak from its pores.
Two days after a hen lays an egg, before it enters the incubation chamber, “We are able to trap the gas and read whether it's male, female, or infertile, and do it in a matter of seconds," says Vital Farms CEO Matt O'Hayer.
At that point, since it takes 21 days of incubation for an egg to develop into a chick, the eggs containing male embryos can still be sold for eating.
In Canada, meanwhile, a McGill University scientist named Michael Ngadia, with funding from Egg Farmers of Ontario, is developing a method of determining the sex of a chicken embryo by shining light through the egg.
"It's kind of like when you candle eggs," EFO general manager Harry Pelissero told the CBC, referring to the practice of holding an egg in front of a candle to look for blood vessels that indicate whether the egg is fertilized. "There is a light that passes through [the egg], and we're able to determine whether it's male or female."
With the expanded application of these dual technologies, the United Egg Producers may be able to move up its deadline. Vital Farms and Novatrans say they should have a commercial version of their invention up and running within a year, and Pelissero says he believes the Canadian technique could be commercialized by next spring.