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Sadly, male chicks are currently an unwanted by-product of egg production. Male chicks in hatcheries are killed in the most humane way possible. At present, this could be through exposure to certain gasses or via a process known as maceration.
Chicks of egg-laying breeds are sexed on their first day of life at the hatchery. This is necessary since male chicks cannot lay eggs and will not be a part of the egg-laying industry. It is our understanding that male chicks in the egg-laying industry are widely used as food for birds of prey, exotic pets, owl rescue centres and other captive wild animals.
It’s upsetting to think of young chicks being killed at all, and if not carried out humanely, both ethical and welfare issues might be raised. Whilst maceration is a legally permitted method of killing in the UK at present, the majority, if not all, male laying hen chicks in Britain are killed using gas.
Once they hatch and are sorted the female chicks are transferred to barns where they grow to a suitable size, and from there on to a laying facility, for RSPCA Assured chicks this will be free-range, organic or barn set up. For a more detailed picture, check out our page on the life of an egg on an RSPCA Assured farm.
The majority of male chicks in the UK are currently killed using an inert gas, but maceration is also allowed. As of writing this, all RSPCA Assured egg-laying hen hatcheries use argon gas to kill the male chicks.
Chickens used in the egg-laying industry are a different breed from those in the meat industry. Male chicks hatched in the egg-laying industry will not grow to produce large breast and leg muscles, and therefore, are not reared for meat, although they may be used as food for exotic pets and birds of prey.
Chickens raised in the meat industry have been bred to grow very fast with large breast and leg muscles, since egg production is not a factor in the meat industry, we can eat both males and females. This is, obviously, different for males in the egg-laying industry.
Male chickens in the meat industry are suitable to be eaten. There is no selection process in the meat industry based on gender. In the egg-laying industry, the male chickens which cannot lay eggs are unsuitable for the meat industry since they are from a breed that does not grow large breast and leg muscles.
We are pleased to see that research is being carried out to look into ways of sexing chicks at an early stage, whilst still in the egg. These new technologies aim to do the sexing and disposal before the embryo can feel pain, which happens at around seven days. We are following these developments with interest.
At the time of writing this article, all RSPCA Assured hatcheries use argon gas as a means of killing unwanted male chicks. Although, according to RSPCA standards, maceration would be an accepted means of killing; whilst not a pleasant process to think about, the evidence shows that it is instant and painless, and therefore humane. Having said this, it is also a practice we hope will one day no longer be necessary.