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September 02, 2014

Unilever: There Must Be a Better Way for Day-Old Male Chicks

I’m a firm believer in the notion that the marketplace has a major role to play in helping animals. Every commercial enterprise, by making intentional choices, can build humane practices into its business models and provide consumers with choices that improve the lives of animals. In fact, consumers are hungry for this kind of leadership from corporate America.

Chicks on belt
Each year, hundreds of millions of baby male chicks are dumped into meat grinders while fully conscious or thrown live into trash bags to suffocate. Photo: Compassion Over Killing

One recent and sterling example comes from Unilever, the food manufacturing giant that owns Hellman’s mayonnaise, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and other major global brands.

Unilever has already earned our applause for its decision to end the use of battery cage eggs in its supply chain by shifting entirely to cage-free eggs. And today—following discussions with The HSUS, Farm Forward, The Humane League, and Compassion in World Farming—the company announced yet another move to reduce animal suffering in the egg industry. It’s going to work to prevent the destruction –via maceration and suffocation – of baby male chicks in the egg industry, dealing with a very ugly, largely hidden and once seemingly unavoidable animal welfare problem.

Maceration, a little known part of egg production, is the mass killing of male chicks—of no use to the industry since they don’t lay eggs. Discarded like trash, these baby birds—hundreds of millions of them a year, just in the United States alone—are dumped into massive grinders while fully conscious, or sometimes simply thrown live into trash bags to suffocate, on the first day of their lives.

While no egg company has pledged to address this systemic abuse in the near term, Unilever announced today that it’s going to do so, having judged the mass killing of the chicks unacceptable in the long run. The company is now working to make a technology commercially and scientifically viable that would determine the sex of embryos in eggs long before they get out of the egg, so that they don’t hatch and create a terrible moral problem. Needless to say, success in this effort would eliminate a vast amount of suffering—chicks endure stressful handling even prior to being killed in hatcheries—for hundreds of millions of animals annually.

Unilever's statement also highlights its exploration of plant-based ingredients to replace eggs in some of its products. To address the numerous severe problems associated with factory farming, all tools should be at our disposal, including the use of plant-based proteins as substitutes for eggs in certain situations.

These steps—ending the mass grinding of male chick births and moving toward plant-based ingredients in products that have long required eggs—are indicators of how innovation driven by animal welfare sensibilities is helping to start critical conversations in the food industry. And that sort of discussion and drive is an antecedent to practical solutions. Last month, we announced ground-breaking changes from Nestlé, and now we have this major action from Unilever. It’s my hope that Kraft and other competitors, and ultimately the egg industry itself, will follow in Unilever’s footsteps and join the push for reforms that will please consumers and that are simply the right thing to do. When it’s the right moral decision, it’s typically the right business decision, too.

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