Lab-Grown Foie Gras Receives French Government Support, Tastes Delicious
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Few foods are simultaneously able to raise feelings of delight and repulsion quite as deftly as foie gras. A fatty duck or goose liver that’s so buttery it’s both delicate and rich, foie gras is considered by many as one of the most luxurious foods. In France its consumption is a ritual deeply rooted in the country’s tradition and culture—no holiday, from Christmas to Bastille Day, is complete without it. But its decadence makes the brutality of how it’s farmed all the more acute: A controversial process known as gavage, where birds are force-fed several times a day through metal tubes until their livers swell, is often considered savage.
Animal welfare concerns have spurred more than a dozen countries to ban production. Next year, New York City will follow California in outlawing sales at restaurants, while the U.K. is mulling an import ban. Even in France, a YouGov poll shows that some three-quarters of people say they would prefer the delicacy sans gavage if they had the choice.
“Foie gras is going through an existential crisis,” says Nicolas Morin-Forest, co-founder of Gourmey, a Paris-based cultivated-meat startup that wants to tap the expected market gap with an offering that is gavage- and even slaughter-free. “We will be essentially unleashing the full foie gras potential and detangling the product from the controversy.”
Gourmey’s product is made from duck stem cells harvested from a single fertilized egg, then grown in vitro, a technology embraced by the nascent cultured-meat industry, which by some estimates is set to claw a 35% share of the $1.8 trillion global meat market by 2040. In stainless-steel tanks known as bioreactors, the cells are fed nutrients to multiply and eventually form whatever tissue is desired, be it fat, muscle, or sinew. More than 70 startups globally are working on everything from pork chops to kangaroo meat to bluefin tuna in response to environmental and livestock welfare concerns.
Foie gras, it turns out, is uniquely suited for this kind of substitute. A common hurdle for lab-grown meats is re-creating the fibers and texture of the original product, such as a chicken breast or steak, which can add steps and expense to the process. But foie gras, with its famous fatty smoothness, doesn’t come with that expectation. And because it’s at the top of the premium scale, lab-grown foie gras can more quickly reach a price parity with the conventionally made product.
Top-quality foie gras could set you back about $176 per kilogram ($80 a pound). “We’re at three-figures range per kilogram and need to go to the two-figures range,” Morin-Forest explained in an email. “We are on our way to decreasing production cost by 40X in the next months.” By comparison, Israel’s Future Meat Technologies Ltd. has gotten its lab-grown chicken down to $40 per kilogram vs. about $7.40 for conventional chicken.
As far as taste and texture go, Gourmey manages to deliver. In a private tasting, its pan-seared foie gras was remarkably good. The meat was slightly pink with a caramelized crust, soft and delicate with a flavor and smell indistinguishable from that of a high-quality foie gras. It melted in the mouth exactly as it should.
A second dish—oven-cooked pâté served with raisin-studded wholegrain bread—tasted like any terrine you might find on supermarket shelves. The lab-grown meat did its job. Turns out, like any ingredient, wow factor ultimately rests with the chef.
That’s a foodie truism that Gourmey, like rivals such as Eat Just, BlueNalu, and Future Meat, is leaning into to convert customers. “We really want to take cultivated meat into our gastronomy, and we believe chef adoption will essentially be the best label on cultivated-meat products,” Morin-Forest says. “The ambition is that in many places cultivated foie gras not only will be the best option, but it will be the only option.”
Gourmey just raised $10 million in seed funding from investors including Point Nine and Air Street Capital, as well as the European Commission and France’s public investment bank, Bpifrance, a sign of government support for alternative proteins.
With the global foie gras market estimated at $2 billion a year, there may be limits to demand and thereby the extent Gourmey can grow, but Morin-Forest thinks ethical foie gras will open up opportunities for the versatile technology. He plans to tap the $300 billion poultry market next with products such as duck magret and turkey breasts, eventually moving on to less fancy chicken nuggets. Products from its pilot factory in the 11th arrondissement should roll out by the end of 2022.
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