An estimated 45 million unwanted birds annually are killed this way in Germany alone, but the practice is commonplace worldwide.
Male chicks cannot lay eggs so are considered useless by egg and poultry producers.
The German Federal Administrative Court gave the green light to the practice in a case involving a hatchery that specialises in egg-laying hens.
But the court said a company’s economic interests don’t constitute a “sensible reason” under animal protection laws for killing the birds, and that techniques to determine chicks’ gender in the egg – so that males are not hatched – should soon be available.
Soon after hatching, egg producers globally separate out the billions of male baby birds to be ground up or gassed.
The RSPCA says most – if not all – male chicks in the UK are killed using inert gas, which can take up to two minutes to kill them, but maceration is also allowed.
British group Animal Aid has estimated 30 million day-old male chicks are disposed of every year in the UK, while worldwide estimates reach 2.5 billion.
Tor Bailey, of Animal Aid, said the court’s decision was a lost opportunity.
“This is hugely disappointing, as the technology exists, but once again economics wins out over welfare. We have no need to use and abuse animals in food production,” she said.
In 2016, the German parliament voted against a Green Party bill calling for a ban on killing male chicks, as members decided the economy would suffer if industrial hatcheries moved abroad.
Julia Klöckner, the agriculture minister, has described the practice as “ethically unacceptable” and called for a ban.
But the court in Leipzig has upheld it until new technology on sex determination in eggs is introduced.
A German company called Seleggt started to sell the first “no kill” eggs last year after developing a non-invasive way to determine the sex of chicken embryos. Only females are allowed to hatch.
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