Foie gras is a well-known French delicacy consumed the world over. Made from the liver of a duck or goose, the specialty food product has caused significant controversy over the years due to its unique production method.
To fatten the birds ahead of slaughter, they are force-fed with more food than they would eat naturally in the wild. This process is known as gavage.
A number of governments have taken a stance against its production on home soil. Today, foie gras production is banned in countries including the Czech Republic, Finland, Italy, Poland, Turkey, and the UK.
Yet demand remains – and consumers appear willing to pay top dollar. Foie gras is regarded the most expensive unstructured animal product on the market, and generally attracts a price tag of between $50 (€46) and $70 per pound.
Driven by concerns for animal cruelty and unsustainable food systems, entrepreneurs have teamed up to create what they describe as ‘ethical foie-gras’: a cultured meat alternative to the real thing.
Filling a gap in the market
French start-up Gourmey was founded in 2019 by three friends: stem cell biologist Antoine Davydoff, molecular biologist Dr Victor Sayous, and entrepreneur Nicolas Morin-Forest.
According to its founders, Gourmey is the first French cultured meat company. Yet unlike the majority of its competitors across the globe, Gourmey is kicking off its cultured meat range with a premium delicacy.
“We strongly believe that cultured meat can offer more than processed foods, such as nuggets or sausages,” said CEO and co-founder Nicolas Morin-Forest, “and can shape a new culinary tradition made of rich and savoury gastronomic delights”.
Having observed growing consumer concern for gavage practices, the CEO described the foie gras industry as a ‘$2bn market facing an existential crisis’. A total of 17 countries have banned its production, and New York is now prohibiting its consumption in the city. This has also been ruled in California and India.
“The need for an alternative is hence booming,” Morin-Forest told FoodNavigator. “Even in France, our love story with foie gras is turning cold, with 75% of French consumers now uncomfortable with the way the delicacy is produced, and seeking a replacement.”
For Gourmey, cultured foie gras allows the delicacy’s culinary heritage to be preserved, while bringing it forward into the 21st century. “Foie gras needs to reinvent itself if it does not want to become a relic of the past.”
Tapping duck egg cells to reinvent liver
Unlike cultured meat firms attempting to recreate whole muscle cuts, Gourmey’s product aims to mimic liver. Traditional fois gras’ texture is ‘compact’ and ‘buttery’ rather than fibrous, Morin-Forest explained. Its texture is therefore less complex than that of a cut of meat.
“Unlike other companies working on muscle-based products, this allows us to cultivate our cells in a simpler set up, without the need to develop a scaffold-based production process, which is one of the main bottlenecks for the entire cultured meat industry when it comes to scaling up.”
A ‘scaffold’, the CEO explained, is a support material that allows cells to grow and form a 3D tissue, with the goal of mimicking the texture of a cut of meat.
Gourmey’s ethical foie gras process begins with a freshly laid duck egg, from which the team extracts ‘a few’ cells. These are then placed directly into a ‘cultivator’, where are fed with the same nutrients found in a duck’s natural diet, such as oats, corn, or grass. These have been broken down into basic nutrients, such as sugars, vitamins, and proteins, the CEO elaborated. “Our feed recipe is still in development and we will bring our foie gras to market with a completely animal-free feed.”
Once the cells have multiplied, Gourmey adjusts the nutrients, slightly increasing the amount of plant-based fats to replicate the effect of force-feeding at a cellular level. “We eventually harvest duck fatty liver cells that we can cook with other ingredients such as white wild pepper, pink berries and a hint of Cognac to serve a rich and tasty duck foie gras.”
Once at scale, Gourmey says the process with be significantly faster than that of conventional foie gras. “We estimate our process should take three to four weeks from cell to fork, compared to three months from hatching to slaughter in duck farming,” the CEO added.
From a nutritional standpoint, Gourmey’s ‘ethical foie gras’ aims to be identical to its conventional counterpart. However, the company says it will explore ways to replace certain unhealthy fats with healthier ingredients – without compromising on taste. “We aim to do this during our development.”
Cultured meat: A sustainability dilemma?
The start-up claims to be, once at full scale, more environmentally sustainable than conventional foie gras, particularly concerning feed ratios and reliance on limited natural resources.
“The greatest pitfall of intensive meat production is perhaps the inefficiency of the system. The majority of the Earth’s habitable surface is used to raise and feed animals to provide a disappointingly small proportion of the global food supply,” said Morin-Forest.
Cultured meat, on the other hand, promises a ‘highly improved’ feed-to-food ratio. Growing meat from cells means producing only the desired edible part of the animal and circumventing the need for huge amounts of land for an inordinate amount of feed crops.
“This is especially true when considering foie gras production, which requires up to a four-fold increase in feed per duck over a 15-day period to produce just a single fatty liver.”
Yet whether cell cultured meat is truly more sustainable than conventionally grown meat has been brought into question of late.
A comparative Oxford University study published last year, which looked at greenhouse gases produced by lab-grown and farm-raised beef concluded that current lab-grown meat production methods cannot provide a ‘cure all’ for the detrimental impact of meat production on climate change.
In response, Morin-Forest said it is still too early to have a precise and data-based answer on the full environmental impact of cultured meat production, as there are simply no production facilities as yet to conduct extensive life cycle analyses.
“The Oxford study is in favour of cultured meat for most of the scenarios presented,” he added, “and the unfavourable ones assume that we will keep using carbon intensive energies for the next 1000 years, which is highly unrealistic.”
Even in that case, cultured meat would be worse than conventional meat only after 400 years, said the CEO. “It is questionable how relevant this timeline is considering the urgency of the climate crisis.”
What is clear, is that the cultured meat industry environmental footprint will be highly dependent on the source of electricity used for the bioreactors. Gourmey plans to rely on renewable energy as it scales, to eventually achieve carbon-neutrality.
From lab to market
Gourmey joins a growing cohort of cultured meat start-ups across the globe, including Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats, JUST Meat and Aleph Farms.
To date, no cultured meat product has been commercialised – the primary barriers to market being price, scale and regulation.
Gourmey believes it will be ‘one of the very few’ cultured meat companies – ‘if not the only one’ – with a price competitive product at launch. The start-up is eyeing up a number of international markets, for various reasons.
“We are looking at several options regarding our first target market and talking to many potential partners,” the CEO revealed. “In the US, the FDA and the USDA are making great progress in paving the way for cultured meat access to market – plus foie gras is banned in California and in the city of New York. We like the idea of being the only legal foie gras producer there.”
The company is also keeping abreast of protein developments in Asia, where Morin-Forest said the foie gras market is growing ‘rapidly’ and where countries such as Singapore are willing to be at the forefront of cultured meat development.
And of course, hailing from the land of foie gras, it is unsurprising that Europe is also on their radar. “Europe is…interesting because there is already a regulatory mechanism in place – the Novel Food Act – that explicitly mentions cultured meat and offers a clear approval process.”
Concerning scale, Gourmey has developed a production roadmap to achieve mass production. Its ‘scaffold-free’ approach allows the start-up to take advantage of existing cell production technologies in other industries, without the need for breakthrough innovation in bioreactor development, we were told.
“Cultured meat is faced with many challenges, so our motto has always been to keep things simple where feasible and to leverage existing technologies. This shortens our process development and scale-up, ultimately allowing us to offer our products to everyone within the coming years.”
Target market and platform potential
Once on the market, Gourmey wants to attract buyers who love foie gras – and meat in general – but who are concerned about the consequences its production has on the environment and animal welfare.
“We consider conscious meat lovers or flexitarians as our core community. Luckily for the environment, this group is growing [fast] and this trend is here to stay, as we can see with Gen Z – which is the most environmentally aware generation so far.”
Moving forward, Gourmey hopes to leverage its technology to broaden its range of lab-grown meat products. “We are building a versatile platform around duck stem cells and its applications are infinite,” Morin-Forest revealed.
“Among the many developments within our reach, we are looking at the production of hybrid products using our liver cells as a unique fat source, to bridge the gap between plant-based and animal-based products – as fat is the missing piece responsible for the unique animal flavour.”
Eventually, the start-up hopes to also bring more complex cuts of meat to market, once scaffold-based cultured meat technologies have matured.