Foie gras — epitome of decadence or cruelty, depending on your point of view — appears to be primed for an “ethical” makeover. Late last year, French scientists near Toulouse trialled a “naturally fatty” foie gras that swaps forced feedings for a serum. Now, Paris startup Gourmey is taking the controversial delicacy a step further by developing a flock-free, lab-grown version.
Using cells cultivated from a single duck egg, and feeding them “the same nutrients that are found in a duck’s natural diet of oats, corn or grass,” Gourmey is “working to develop a foie gras without force-feeding or slaughter — delicious and 100 per cent ethical.”
In France, foie gras is defined by the very mode of production animal advocates protest: gavage (force-feeding). Overfeeding ducks or geese via tubes inserted into their throats causes a chemical change in their livers. The resulting accumulation of fat engorges the organ until it reaches up to ten times its usual size. (The aforementioned serum achieves a similar effect through bacteria. When geese ingest the serum, it jump-starts “a natural, rather than forced build-up of fat.”)
This high proportion of fat creates foie gras’ characteristically smooth texture, which is highly prized by pleasure seekers. And while farmers object to claims the procedure is cruel, activists maintain that the luxury food comes at the expense of animal welfare.
Banned in countries such as India, Israel, the U.K. and parts of the U.S., including California and New York City, even its sway in France is faltering. “In France, our love story with foie gras is also turning cold: 75 per cent of French consumers are uncomfortable with the way foie gras is produced and would love a force-feeding-free alternative,” Nicolas Morin-Forest, Gourmey CEO and cofounder, told CleanTechnica.
While Gourmey plans to branch out into other meats — such as a duck burger — after it launches its foie gras in the next three to four years, its epicurean focus sets it apart. Previous lab-grown meat prototypes — including Aleph Farms’ steak, Just Inc.’s chicken nuggets, Memphis Meats’ meatballs and New Age Meats’ pork links — have focused on replicating standard Western fare.
Animal rights activists hold a rally in support of a bill to ban the sale of foie gras on June 18, 2019 at New York City Hall in New York. PHOTO BY ANGELA WEISS /AFP via Getty Images
“We strongly believe that cultured meat can offer more than processed foods, such as nuggets or sausages, and can shape a new culinary tradition made of rich and savoury gastronomic delights,” Morin-Forest told FoodNavigator.
With its cultured liver, Gourmey joins the likes of Just Meats, which partnered with a Japanese ranch specializing in wagyu genetics to develop cultured upscale beef. High-grade wagyu can cost as much as $275 per pound (455 grams), and is one of the most expensive meats in the world.
Among France’s most contentious and extravagant foods — typically running between $70 and $100 per pound (455 grams) — foie gras is decidedly premium. Amidst ongoing concerns of animal cruelty, the industry behind this viand is “facing an existential crisis,” Morin-Forest said. “Foie gras needs to reinvent itself if it does not want to become a relic of the past.”