A flash of light under the eggshell and the machine determines the sex of the embryo. In French hatcheries, hatching of male chicks, incapable of laying eggs like their “sisters”, is becoming rare: they were previously crushed, a practice banned by Germany in 2022 and by France this year.
In a room with white walls, employees bring carts filled with eggs into a sort of stainless steel box. A robot unloads the eggs at the entrance to the automated line.
On the 13th day of incubation (out of 21), the eggs are briefly illuminated from below and the artificial intelligence takes action.
“The image spectrum is analyzed by computer. The shell remains intact, there is no risk of bacterial contamination,” describes Anke Förster, from the German company AAT (EW group), to journalists during a visit organized by the egg inter-profession ( CNPO).
Blue suction cups grab the eggs and separate them according to the algorithm’s commands. The female embryos will return to the incubator to hatch a week later. Clear (unfertilized) eggs and those containing males, destroyed, will be transformed into animal food.
The machine developed by AAT, called Cheggy, can analyze 20,000 eggs per hour. The Lohmann hatchery (also a subsidiary of the EW group), in Vendée (west), has two and plans to install a third to “sex” up to 60,000 eggs per hour.
A question of feathers
The hatchery is one of five French establishments specializing in the supply of female chicks, the future laying hens.
In the world of eggs, apart from the few roosters kept for breeding, males are superfluous, with hens producing 1,500 billion unfertilized eggs per year without them to feed humans.
Their “brothers” are therefore eliminated after hatching, generally by crushing, a practice that Germany and France have banned in 2022 and 2023 respectively.
The problem does not arise in chicken meat production: males and females are raised together and slaughtered before sexual maturity.
But AAT technology only works on red hens, which represent 85% of French production. In these poultry, selection resulted in white males. The machine detects this difference on the first feathers of the forming embryo.
The hatchery shows a box of barely hatched chicks: a few chicks with white down, some males, which the machine has not spotted (it is more than 96% reliable). They will be eliminated by CO2 gassing and will end up in zoos to feed birds of prey and reptiles.
This is also the fate of male white hens. An exemption allows them to continue to be eliminated after hatching, the profession and the French government having considered that the technology was not mature enough, and too costly, concerning them.
Two French hatcheries can, however, “sex” white hens.
They invested in technology that works with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), offered by the German company Orbem. It identifies the ovaries and testicles of future chicks, allowing them to be sorted regardless of the color of the feathers.
But the rate is much lower: 3,000 eggs per hour per machine. Orbem suggests installing multiple MRIs to increase sexing capacity.
Bénédicte Lanckriet, manager of the Lanckriet hatchery, in Picardy (north) which has two, is happy to be among the “precursors” of egg sexing: “Crushing animals is an aberration. From now on, we only hatch what we need.”
She prefers not to give the amount of the investment: “We are eating money with that, it is not profitable at all, it would have to be compulsory throughout Europe” for the demand for egg-sexed hens to increase.
For the consumer, however, the additional cost is only three cents for six eggs, depending on the profession.