Technology to prevent the necessity of killing surplus or unproductive animals should be encouraged to prevent unnecessary suffering, a new report from the EU food safety agency (EFSA) has found.
The report, published on Wednesday (13 November), comes amongst mounting controversy surrounding the mass killing of billions of newborn male chickens, still common practice in industrialised farming around the world.
The findings will be used by the European Commission in discussions with the intergovernmental forum, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), aimed at aligning approaches to animal welfare at slaughter.
Male chicks, who grow more slowly than hens, are considered as commercially useless in the industry as they are deemed unsuitable for meat production. Billions of male baby birds are therefore killed shortly after birth, most commonly by grinding or gassing.
The mass culling of male chicks has long been a focus of animal rights activists, who say the practice is unethical.
The issue has been gaining traction in policy circles after a top German court ruled that it is still lawful for poultry and egg producers to kill unwanted male chicks.
Elsewhere in Europe, special attention has been given to the maceration of male chicks, with France announcing that the culling of male chicks by maceration would be outlawed by the end of 2021.
Likewise, Switzerland is in the process of banning the practice of “shredding” newly hatched male chicks.
Although specific hazards were identified for day-old chicks killed via maceration, the report concludes that all methods to dispose of unwanted chicks and poultry have a number of hazards associated with them.
In fact, the report found that, of the 35 hazards identified and characterised, most of them were related to stunning and bleeding.
Furthermore, staff involved in culling were identified as the origin of 29 of the hazards, with 28 attributed to the lack of appropriate skill sets needed to perform tasks or to fatigue.
However, preventive measures to correct hazards were only identified for 11 hazards.
It was also found that there were a number of ways in which unwanted poultry suffered before they were killed which were unrelated to the killing method. This includes, for example, temperature stress, prolonged thirst and hunger, restriction of movements, pain, fear and distress.
This raises the question as to whether the outlawing of the maceration of male chicks goes far enough to protect their welfare.
A number of mitigative measures to minimise the suffering of unwanted poultry were suggested in the report. One suggestion was that “technology to prevent the necessity of killing surplus/unproductive animals should be encouraged” and that “this is recommended in single-farm-scale killing as well as in bigger scale”.
There has been a lot of progress recently in techniques to determine chicks’ gender in the egg.
In a recent interview with EURACTIV Germany, Dr Ludger Breloh, managing director of the egg breeding company Seleggt Gmbh, spoke about his company’s endocrine procedure, designed to determine the gender of the chicks before hatching, saying that this technology provides a “feasible solution” to the problem.
After the eggs are selected by their gender, they can then be processed into animal feed instead of being hatched, thus eliminating the need to kill billions of chicks.
He added that there are a number of new gender determination methods being researched worldwide which would allow farmers to identify the sex of a chick before birth.
Speaking to EURACTIV in June this year, German Poultry Association spokesperson Florian Anthes said he truly believes that such processes are the future. “The question is not whether but when technologies for determining gender will be able to establish themselves on the market,” Anthes told EURACTIV.
These new scientific opinions are the first in a series of updates on the welfare of animals at slaughter requested by the European Commission. EFSA will publish further opinions in 2020 on pigs (March), cattle (June), and other species (December).
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]