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  January 27, 2001  

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Sexing chickens - say again? - still a Japanese fraternity
By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO - Nearly all of the 90-odd people in Brazil who provide their vital services to chicken farmers, identifying the sex of day-old chicks, are of Japanese descent.

In fact, a full 90 percent of Brazil's chicken sexers are of Japanese origin, said the president of the national association of chicken sexers, Tacaaqui Mifune. People of Japanese descent account for 0.8 percent of Brazil's population of 168 million.

The technique was introduced in this South American country around 75 years ago by Japanese immigrants who only passed the skill on to their children and grandchildren, thus maintaining an exclusive fraternity, said Edilberto de Freitas, production supervisor at the Pena Branca poultry company in the state of Sao Paulo.

"One of the world's most specialized careers would have to be chicken sexing," writes Bob Martin, an Australian who has spent 60 years studying and practicing the occupation. In his book "The Specialist Chicken Sexer", Martin explains that three Japanese scientists developed the technique for determining the sex of hatchlings by examining the chick's vent (rear end) back in 1924.

Martin says the technique involves close examination of the chicken's cloaca, a common external opening for the digestive, urinary and reproductive tract. The sexer looks for a degenerate penis presented by all males, as well as 15 percent of females. The skill lies in determining the sex of that 15 percent.

Sexing chicks as early as possible is crucial to maintaining the productivity levels demanded by today's market, because the sex of a chick determines its fate, and the kind of rations and other care it receives. Chicken raising farms, for example, must send only pullets (female chicks) to commercial egg producers, whose costs would rise if they fed cockerels (males) unnecessarily.

"We only accept a maximum one percent margin of error," said Roberto Noboru Nywa, a businessman who has around 60,000 laying hens in Mogi das Cruzes, a town near Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city.

Martin explains that in the past, poultry farmers had to wait until chicks began to develop their adult feathers at five to six weeks old, which allowed them to be differentiated by sex.

In Brazil, the technique was monopolized by Japanese immigrants and their descendants until the 1980s, when the association began to train Brazilians from other ethnic backgrounds.

Flavio Henrique de Freitas said he was the third Brazilian of non-Japanese descent to break into the guild. He has been sexing chickens for a decade, since he was trained at age 15 by a friend of his father, who was the manager of the Planalto poultry farm in Uberlandia, a city in the eastern state of Minas Gerais. "The training was hard, partly due to a certain degree of discrimination, until I gained the trust of my colleagues," he said.

Although in De Freitas' case the training process took eight months, it usually lasts two to three years, and "many quit" due to the demanding apprenticeship - which he said is necessary, however.

According to Martin, the technique "sounds simple, but in fact requires great concentration, accuracy, long hours of training and practice examination".

Technique and a strong work ethic are not enough, said De Freitas, who stressed the spirit of dedication and respect granted the profession, which he said was difficult to transmit. The Japanese culture, which puts a high premium on discipline and patience, favors that sense of dedication, said the chicken sexer.

Due to the "great willpower" needed, poultry farms prefer "niseis" (second generation Japanese immigrants), who are known for their discipline and dedication, said Natal Takeshi Ami, the vice-president of the association of chicken sexers, who has practiced the trade for 29 years.

The value to the industry and skill of chicken sexers is rewarded by the good salaries they earn, which allow them to live well and become car and home-owners in this country where a majority of people live in poverty. However, Mifune, who has spent 34 years in the profession, said he would never let his children follow in his footsteps, because "it is a life of sacrifice, hard work and long business trips" which take you away from your children.

Only 15 percent of chicken sexers in Brazil are women, said Mifune, who explained that "most of them quit when they get married and have children, because they can't travel anymore".

Chicken sexers work on a freelance basis, are hired for short stints, have no paid vacations, and are not entitled to pensions or other benefits enjoyed by those in steady jobs, he pointed out.

Further compounding the difficulties, the pay has declined since the mid-1980s, due to the tough international competition in the poultry farming sector, which has forced companies to cut costs, Mifune added. He noted that it was necessary to work harder than ever to earn a salary equivalent to US$1,200 a month.

Takeshi Ami agreed, adding that today only those who "reject" school and do not want to continue studying choose the profession.

The decade of the '70s, when poultry farming grew into an industry of scale and modern technology in Brazil, was the golden era for chicken sexers, who played a key role in boosting productivity by drastically reducing the losses caused by the inability to distinguish the sex of hatchlings.

Neighboring Argentina's chicken farming industry is now evolving in a similar manner, forced to upgrade by the competition from Brazil, one of the world's leading producers and exporters of poultry. Argentine chicken farms frequently hire Brazilian vent- sexers.

The trade demands precision and speed. Takeshi Ami was Brazil's national champion in 1986, identifying the sex of 100 hatchlings in three minutes and 31 seconds, with 100 percent accuracy. The following year, he represented Brazil in the world championship in Belgium.

Japanese-Brazilian chicken sexers are the best in the world, said Mifune, who pointed out that they not only held the world record, but that Brazil had the largest number of top-quality chicken sexers of any country.

But chicken sexers are expensive to hire, according to poultry farmers like Edilberto de Freitas.

Levino Bassi, supervisor of genetic improvements at the Poultry and Swine Center of the Brazilian Company of Agricultural Research, a state institution, said that was why poultry farmers had turned to genetics to develop hatchlings that can be sexed by visible characteristics like color and markings, rather than the subtle differences that demand the precision involved in vent- sexing.

The growth in the number of chicken sexers has not kept up with the expansion of Brazil's poultry farming industry, but is actually diminishing in proportional terms, said Bassi, who added that new technology could even make the trade obsolete sometime in the future.

(Inter Press Service)

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