ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If you want eggs, you need chickens, female chickens. So every year, the hatcheries that breed new chicks for egg producers slaughter hundreds of millions of them because they are male. But thanks to some new technology, that practice might soon be on its way out. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Matt O'Hayer is in the egg business. He's CEO of Vital Farms, which sells eggs from hens that run around outdoors on grassy pastures at a hundred different farms. But until a few years ago, he'd never thought much about where those hens come from or what happened to their male siblings. Then one day, he ran into a couple of people from the animal rights group PETA.
MATT O'HAYER: I told them what I was doing for a living, and they said, oh well, that's horrific. And I said, why is that? They said because what happens to the male chicks?
CHARLES: And that's when O'Hayer learned about what happens at the hatcheries that supply his farmers with their hens. Those hatcheries incubate fertile eggs from breeding flocks. But the hatcheries only want female chicks because they're working with a breed of chickens that's only used to lay more eggs. It's not raised for its meat.
O'HAYER: It's kind of bred to lay eggs and not to gain weight. They are mainly egg-laying machines, and the male of the species has no value.
CHARLES: But there's no way right now to screen the fertilized eggs quickly to see which embryos are male or female. Instead, teams of workers inspect each newly-hatched chick. They keep the females. But the males - well, they get killed instantly in a machine that grinds them up - 300 million of them each year in the U.S.
O'Hayer was horrified. He started looking for a way to end this. And he wasn't alone. Here's Chad Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers.
CHAD GREGORY: It's been an issue that the international egg industry has been dealing with and trying to sort out and trying to find commercially available and economically feasible solutions for years now.
CHARLES: The industry has been under pressure from animal welfare groups, but also, hatching and then destroying male chicks wastes money. Now Matt O'Hayer from Vital Farms says after years of searching, he has the solution. Vital Farms teamed up with an Israeli company called Novatrans, which found a way to analyze the chemical makeup of gases that leak from the pores of an egg.
O'HAYER: We are able to trap the gas, read whether it's male, female or infertile and do it a number of seconds as opposed to minutes.
CHARLES: O'Hayer says they can do this before the egg even goes into the incubator, so early you can sell the eggs with male embryos as regular, edible eggs. O'Hayer expected to have a commercial version of this invention up and running within a year, and he may have competition. In Canada, a scientist at McGill University is working on a way of sexing eggs by shining light through them. German researchers are working on yet another approach.
David Coman-Hidy, executive director of the Humane League, an animal welfare advocacy group, says last summer he was pushing the egg industry to promise to stop killing male chicks by the year 2020.
DAVID COMAN-HIDY: Now that we've seen these new folks trying to get these contracts as quickly as possible and there's a lot of motivation behind that, I think we might see this change happening even sooner.
CHARLES: Once one of these technologies proves that it works, he says, companies will rush to adopt it. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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