Sex determination in the embryonic stage

The determination of the sex of the chick in the embryonic stage (also known as in-ovo sexing) is now a reality in Italy. In December 2023 the Italian Parliament approved a specific law, which will prohibit the practice of eliminating male chicks at birth. Male chicks of light breeds ( in fact, having highly inefficient growth, they are considered unsuitable for meat production and, not being required by the market because they are too expensive for skin-and-bone chickens, they are eliminated at birth following legal method and timing. This practice, adopted throughout the world, has been the subject of much controversy and debate and, in Western public opinion, is increasingly conceived as unacceptable and intolerable animal exploitation.

Italy will be the third European and therefore global country (because Europe is the first in the world to adopt this technology) to adopt a law that prevents this practice, following the example of Germany in 2022 and France in 2023. A result that places those countries at the forefront of animal welfare issues.

It should be underlined that in Italy, only case in Europe, for decades a quota of around 12% of males was not killed at birth, but bred for some traditional niche productions, such as light cockerel or capon which are very expensive because they are both raised outdoor and grow very slowly – at least 6 months. The capon is surgically castrated at around 40 days old.

The legislation just approved in Italy will come into force on 12/31/2026, but females whose gender is identified in the embryonic stage are available since February 2021. The Italian supply chain has in fact undertaken this revolution early, showing great attention to the topic without waiting for ad hoc legislation.

To transform the traditional production process into the new standard that is more respectful of the fate of male chicks, in the next three years it will be necessary to completely review the existing specialized structures; in fact, currently no hatchery has sufficient space to install the equipment necessary to determine the gender of the embryo on 100% of production. Furthermore, these modifications must be capable of guaranteeing the best hygiene procedures to guarantee the health of the hatched animals and the safety of the operators.

There are currently at least 5 (all different) technologies available on the market, studied and developed by private research centers or spin-offs of university departments. All design and development phases required several years and huge investments. Today the available equipment is not for sale, but rented to users with fees based on use.

Due to the necessary investments at the production sites and the rather high fees for using the equipment, the transition to this new type of production cannot be at zero cost; the change will inevitably cause a significant increase in production costs, which will also have an impact on the final cost of eggs on store shelves.

Difficult to predict today what will be the cost and the market response.

We will have a clearer view of the ultimate economic impact only once the new standard has been consolidated throughout the entire egg supply chain.

This will take time and the informed consumer will have to take this into consideration even when hearing about this topic from those who do not have this information.

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The MAC editorial team