Israeli tech aims to block hatching of billions of male chicks fated for culling

Many people find nothing quite as satisfying as eggs for breakfast: The average Israeli eats 240 eggs a year and numbers are similar in the US and UK. The average hen lays 296 eggs annually.

One disturbing side of all those scrambled eggs, omelets and eggs served sunny-side up is that for every egg-laying hen born into the industrial farming system, a male chick is killed, with more than six billion total culled annually around the world.

Now NRS Poultry, a research group at Rehovot’s Volcani Institute, believes it has created a solution to the problem, with genetic technology that could be wide-reaching in its global scope.

“It’s a complete change of the industry because it will allow us not to do this cruel thing,” said Eli Mor, CEO of Impact NRS, the company harnessing the Volcani Institute research technology. “It’s a biological solution, so it won’t be implemented in a day, but the beauty of the solution is that there is no need to bring in specific equipment to a very conservative, traditional industry.”

Most chicken meat comes from “broiler” chickens, bred to grow big and quickly. Egg-laying hens, however, are a leaner breed, raised to put all their energy toward laying and later used as pet food, feed or landfill when their egg output wanes.  The male chicks from the egg-laying hens are culled as they cost more to care for than they would ever sell for as meat.

It’s an issue that’s been lobbied by animal welfare activities for decades, and the egg industry doesn’t like it either. The best option is genetic technology that can determine the sex of a chicken before it hatches — stopping the incubation process for males before they even come out of their shells.

And NRS Poultry may have finally figured it out.

Dr. Yuval Cinnamon, an embryonic specialist who is trying to change the methods of the global egg industry (Courtesy Dima Polivkin)

Dr. Yuval Cinnamon is an embryology expert who was brought in to agricultural research center Volcani Institute six years ago to work on a solution.

What Cinnamon and his team determined revolves around the common denominator of all male chickens, the Z chromosome from the mother hen. Their concept was to introduce the gene that halts the embryogenesis to the Z chromosome, in order to stop the creation of male chicks at the stage when they are only a microscopic cluster of cells.

“We’re making a genetic modification that segregates only to the males and is perfectly validated,” said Cinnamon.

There are no live chickens at the NRS Poultry lab in the Volcani Institute, but millions of embryonic cells whose only role is to transfer genetic information. Trays upon trays of cell tissue cultures in the company’s labs are analyzed and validated before being tested for modification.

Dr. Yuval Cinnamon, an embryo specialist who heads the NRS Poultry research group in Rehovot’s Volcani Institute, showing the lab where he and his team are attempting to change the genetic technology of eggs (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

There are many research labs trying to solve the male chick issue, said Cinnamon, and most are trying to sort the eggs, a nearly impossible task in chicken embryos that are identical in the early stages of development. By the time the eggs are seven days old, it’s too late for sorting.

“It’s the most devastating animal welfare problem worldwide,” said Cinnamon. “Chickens are the most important organism in world, and eggs provide much of the world’s nutrition.”

Now NRS needs to show its technology to the chicken breeding companies, convincing them to integrate their biological solution. The global industry is dominated by three players in Germany, Holland and China.

That makes it easier for NRS to access the market, despite the costly investments required.

“You just have to market for one of the players, not all of them,” said Mor. “They’re working with 3 trillion eggs per year total and need 8 billion layers per year.”

Egg alternatives

Eggs made with Egg’N’Up, a cellulose-based egg substitute created by food technology company SavorEat (Courtesy SavorEat)

The other option for this nutritional bonanza is to create eggs from other materials.

Several food technology companies are developing this concept, including Rehovot’s SavorEat, known for its 3D-printed plant burgers being tested at Israel’s BBB burger joints and now introducing Egg’N’Up, a carton of formulated egg substitute based on cellulose fibers.

SavorEat is currently patenting its plant-based egg substitute based on cellulose fibers, a natural compound composed of long chains of glucose molecules developed by Oded Shoseyov, SavorEat’s co-founder and chief scientific officer.

The vegan egg substitute has no cholesterol but tastes like an egg, and can be used for cooking, baking and frying, said founder and CEO Racheli Vizman.

“The challenge with these eggs is the texture,” said Vizman. “The raw material is clean and completely vegan, but in order for consumers to go for it, it has to feel like an egg when you put it in your mouth.”

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