Unilever’s recent announcement that it would aim to put a stop to the culling of day old male chicks by its egg suppliers caused a few raised eyebrows among members of The Grocer’s team last week.

The fact that it happens shouldn’t surprise: male chickens can’t lay eggs, and because the birds are bred for egg-laying purposes, they are not suitable for meat production. This means there are millions of male chicks hatched every year with no use, other than perhaps for reptile feed.

What caused alarm were the methods used to dispose of the chicks. In many cases, they are fed into grinders while still alive – alternatively, they might be gassed or electrocuted en masse (with the later regarded as somewhat more humane). Now, if some of our own journalists had little awareness of these practices, it’s fair to say that the same goes for the public.

Nobody wants to perpetuate the cruel treatment of animals, but at the same time, consumers want eggs at an affordable price. When I spoke to Philip Lymbery, the CEO of Compassion in World Farming, he said that reconciling these two needs had been a “seemingly unsolvable problem for the industry until now”.

That’s why Unilever’s move should be commended. The company is investing in the research and market introduction of in-ovo gender identification – a process that would prevent the hatching of male chicks altogether.

For a few of us, that might present a whole new ethical conundrum, but the vast majority of consumers will see it as a huge step in the right direction.

Beyond ethical considerations, stopping the hatching of male chicks before they are born would improve efficiency – and in the long term, producers would benefit.

Pressure will now switch to Unilever’s competitors to follow suit, hopefully raising standards across the board.