News 03.01.2023

Chick-killing ban: Where have all the cockerels gone...

  • Animal welfare
Adobe Stock/voren1

The industrial killing of male chicks in Germany has been banned since January 2022 – one of the first European countries. foodwatch investigated to what extent the new ban has improved animal welfare.

Claims like “free of chick killing” can be found on numerous egg cartons. And in fact, this horrific practice has been banned in Germany for a whole year now: The new German law that took effect on 1 January 2022 prohibits the culling of male chicks shortly after hatching. EU law still allows the named methods – only France, Austria, Luxembourg and Italy have also enacted nationwide bans against chick killing.

Prior to this ban, up to 45 million newly hatched male chicks were being gassed, asphyxiated, or killed by shredding, whilst fully alive and conscious every year in Germany. Since male chickens from egg-laying breeds cannot lay eggs or be fattened up quickly enough to be sold for meat, they are considered “worthless” to the food industry. However, the new law requires that these “brother cockerels” be hatched and reared unless the eggs with male embryos are destroyed at an early enough stage of incubation.

What has been happening with male chicks since the ban? 

Has the ban really made Germany a “global pioneer” in this area, as proudly claimed by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL)? foodwatch set out to investigate what became of the nearly 9 million male chicks that hatched in the first nine months of 2022. The surprising discovery: No one knows – or no one wants to know.

The lobby organisation for the poultry industry? Can only speculate on the whereabouts of the cockerels. The competent authorities? Have no idea. Appropriate monitoring? Is apparently not taking place. Instead, as foodwatch’s research revealed, poultry farms have transported more than 300,000 animals to other countries. In the case of at least one hatchery, the male chicks were not reared by the destination farm – but immediately slaughtered. Is this what “improved animal welfare” looks like? We don’t think so.

Laying hens continue to suffer

To make matters worse: Although the gassing and shredding of newly hatched male chicks is now prohibited, the female animals still face a life of pain and illness in horrendous housing conditions. As shown by a recent study from the University of Bern, a shocking 97% of laying hens are affected by keel bone fractures (equivalent of the human sternum).. The bones of these high-performance laying hens become weak and brittle due to the large amounts of calcium required for eggshell production. The suffering of these laying hens continues unabated – while promises like “free of chick killing” on egg cartons lead consumers to believe that all is well in the world of livestock farming.

What is needed is a fundamental restructuring of the system: We have to reduce the number of chickens, use higher-welfare breeds and provide humane living conditions that promote animal health and welfare.
Dr. Chris Methmann Managing Director of foodwatch Germany

Dual-purpose chickens would be a solution

The chick-culling ban merely addresses the symptoms of a much larger problem: a dysfunctional livestock farming system aimed at maximising egg production and minimising costs. The root of the issue is the modern agricultural industry, where chickens are bred for either extreme egg production or extreme meat production. And at this level, nothing has changed.

The only sustainable solution would be the use of so-called dual-purpose chickens that lay an adequate number of eggs and can also be raised for meat. 

EU has to rethink animal husbandry

Within the EU, things are moving forward in much smaller steps. The European Commission and the Council of the EU have already shown signs that they may be willing to issue a prohibition against chick culling in the EU. 

The Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, told the agriculture ministers of Member States at the October 17th AGRIFISH Council : “The systematic killing of millions of day old male chicks in the laying hens sector is a very disturbing phenomenon and it does [...] raise important ethical concerns and highlights practices that come from a different time and age [...] I want to propose to phase out this practice and I hope I can count on your support”.

But this must be just the beginning. foodwatch demands to rethink animal husbandry and calls on all MEPs and Member States to support the use of dual-purpose chickens. The inhumane use of high-performance breeds must be banned, and these animals replaced with healthier and higher-welfare chicken breeds!