The industrial-scale killing of new-born male chickens in Germany could soon be banned following a court case.
In the farming industry, male chicks and some unhealthy female chicks are considered a by-product, while healthy female chicks are reared to become egg-laying hens.
Around 6 billion chicks are killed each year globally, according to estimates. Shortly after hatching, the males are separated out to be either gassed or crushed. But in Germany on June 13, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig will decide whether to ban this practice when it rules over a case between two hatcheries and the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia.
A lawyer for the German Animal Welfare Federation, Martin Wilmsen, told CNBC Tuesday that the case should set a legal benchmark by spelling out that killing male chicks is in contravention to the country's animal welfare act.
"It means that any authority in Germany will have to respect the sentence that says there is no reasonable cause for the killing," he said by phone.
One-day-old male chicks are typically killed either by gas or maceration. According to the U.K.'s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a grinder can kill the chicks within one second, but gassing can prolong the process by up to two minutes.
Wilmsen said the court case is less about how they are killed — as farmers in Germany do appear to be complying with the law — but more about the fact that the chicks are dying at all.
The 28 EU member states exported a total 960 million euros ($1.1 billion) worth of eggs in 2016, according to official figures. Germany was the third-largest exporter, accounting for 135 million euros worth and 16% of trade between member states.
In 2016, the German parliament voted against a Green Party bill calling for a ban on the killing of chicks, as lawmakers decided the economy would suffer if industrial hatcheries simply packed up and moved to another country. However, the Minister of Food and Agriculture, Julia Klöckner, has since stated that chick culling is "intolerable from an ethical point of view" and must be abolished as soon as possible.
To combat the problem, Germany has pioneered technology that allows the sex of the chick to be known before its 21 days of incubation are complete and hatching occurs.
After nine days of incubation, a tiny drop of liquid is extracted from the egg and tested by mixing with a hormone. If, after the chemical reaction, a male is detected, then the embryo is destroyed.
In an email to CNBC, the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) said it had invested 5 million euros in a patented "Seleggt" technology system which removes the liquid using air pressure and a laser. It claimed that the system takes one second per egg and now around 30,000 "no-kill" female chicks hatch in Germany every week.
"As a result, male chicks will simply not be born anymore. This technology has already been used and is now entering the stage of series production. Next year this technology will be at the disposal of all hatcheries," the ministry said Wednesday.
In November, the world's first ever eggs resulting from the technology went on sale in Berlin and the supermarket chain Rewe Group, who helped develop the system, plans to increase sales across the country.
The ministry said it is also funding "spectroscopic technology" by the firm Agri Advanced Technologies. This company aims to build industry-ready machines that can determine the sex using light shone onto the surface of an egg after just four days of incubation. This less intrusive method is approved by the German Animal Welfare Federation who say it should guarantee no pain.
Another solution being sought is the reintroduction of a "dual-purpose chicken" breed, where the female chickens are used for egg production while the male chickens are fattened for meat. Such breeds existed in the 1960s but cost farmers more to raise, produced smaller eggs and grew smaller amounts of meat in the chest cavity.
Despite the apparent challenge, the German government has co-sponsored a project with the science community to look at the farming of a modern-day breed of dual-purpose chickens. The project period ended at the end of March and results are currently being evaluated.