French startup promises cruelty-free foie gras, grown in a lab

July 14, 2021, 7:00 AM UTC

Foie gras without the guilt.

That’s the promise of a Paris-based startup called Gourmey that has perfected the science and art of creating lab-grown duck and goose liver. Think Memphis Meats (now called Upside Foods) for the Michelin-star set.

Today Gourmey announced it has raised $10 million in additional venture funding.

Foie gras, which is made from duck or goose liver, has long been public enemy No. 1 among those concerned about the animal cruelty inherent in the human food chain. That’s because, to prod the birds’ bodies into growing extremely large and fatty livers, farmers alternately starve and then force-feed the animals, including inserting a tube down their throats, in the final weeks before they are slaughtered.

Production of foie gras has been outlawed in 17 countries, including the U.K., which is also considering prohibiting foie gras from being imported from France. In the U.S., California passed a ban in 2004 on producing the rich, creamy pâté in the state (the ban, which went into effect in 2012, has been in and out of court since). And the delicacy is poised to become illegal in New York City starting next year. Many top chefs have also voluntarily opted to remove foie gras from their menus on ethical grounds.

But the product remains very popular in France, where it is closely associated with the country’s world-renowned culinary tradition, as well as in Spain and Japan. Globally, the sale of foie gras is a $2 billion per year industry.

Going beyond burgers

The fact that foie gras is so closely associated with France’s haute cuisine is one of the reasons Gourmey’s founders wanted to take it on as their first product after the company was launched in 2019. Nicolas Morin-Forest, Gourmey’s cofounder and CEO, says he wanted to prove that lab-grown meat could “go beyond burgers” and play a role in “gastronomy.” He also knew that the ban on the production or sale of foie gras in many places created a ready market, with many top chefs actively looking for an alternative.

Morin-Forest, who has a background in marketing, also knew that if his startup managed to create lab-cultured foie gras, it could garner a lot of free publicity, especially in France, and the company would be able to count on the endorsement of top chefs and restaurants.

Of course, Gourmey can’t actually call its product “foie gras” in France. That appellation is reserved, by law, for the substance produced from the livers of force-fed geese. So in the startup’s native land, it will market the product as simply a “poultry delicacy.”

Gourmey is one of about two dozen young companies around the world seeking to grow various kinds of food using animal proteins, but without the animals. Alongside Upside Foods, the California-based pioneer in the industry, are companies like Mission Barns, also in California, Aleph Farms, in Israel, and Avant Meats, in China. The technology opens avenues for foods such as cruelty-free veal and even, just maybe, kosher bacon.

And it’s not just those who care about the ethical treatment of animals who are eager to see an end to the use of farmed animals to produce protein. So too are many people interested in combating climate change. Livestock contribute greatly to greenhouse gas production, both directly from the methane emitted by cows, and also because carbon dioxide–trapping trees and forests are cut down and burned to create land for grazing and to grow feed crops. What’s more, the antibiotics used to treat livestock are seen as a leading factor in the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Delicacy price point

The fact that foie gras is a relatively expensive delicacy was part of Gourmey’s strategic calculus: It meant the company would have a better chance of creating a product that would achieve price parity—or at least be price competitive—with foie gras produced from farmed animals, Morin-Forest says. Price competitiveness is a potential Achilles’ heel for other lab-grown meats that have targeted mass-market foods, such as hamburgers and chicken breasts (which are the first markets that Upside Foods is tackling) or chicken nuggets (which startup Eat Just created), as consumers are likely to balk at paying a hefty premium, despite the ethical arguments in favor of lab-grown protein.

Gourmey plans to eventually produce a full range of lab-grown meats, starting with other poultry products that can be produced using the same stem cell lines, harvested from duck, chicken, or turkey eggs, as the foie gras.

Photo of Gourmey team.
The Gourmey staff
Courtesy of Gourmey

Today, just in time for France’s Bastille Day holiday, the startup announced that it has received $10 million in additional funding from a group of venture capital firms that include Point Nine, Air Street Capital, Heartcore, Partech, Big Idea Ventures, Eutopia Ventures, Ataraxia, and Beyond Investing.

Morin-Forest says the company plans to use the money to perfect its foie gras and build a production facility in central Paris to begin producing it in larger quantities. “We want to show that meat can be produced in the heart of the cities where it is consumed,” he says. “We want a very short path from ‘cell-cultivator to fork.’” Gourmey also plans to hire more food engineers and biologists, expanding its workforce from about 20 to at least 30.

To sell its product, the company will need regulatory approval in various countries around the world, and many of those places have yet to establish protocols for certifying lab-grown meat. Morin-Forest says Gourmey will seek approval to sell in the U.S. first, followed by Asia, where demand for delicacies like foie gras is soaring and where Singapore has already approved the sale of Eat Just’s lab-grown chicken, and finally the European Union. He hopes to deliver the product through fine-food distributors and restaurants worldwide starting in late 2022 or early 2023.

Creating creamy texture in a lab

Morin-Forest’s cofounders, Victor Sayous, a molecular biologist, and Antoine Davydoff, a cell biologist, surmised foie gras could be created from poultry stem cells harvested from duck eggs. But they knew it would be difficult to match the delicate flavor and creamy texture of foie gras. Just how difficult, even they underestimated.

“It was an exceptionally hard process,” Morin-Forest says. The company had to figure out what was happening molecularly in the livers of the birds when they are being force-fed. “The liver cells are almost exploding because they have to accumulate so much lipids,” he says.

While the startup can replicate some of this in the way it grows its liver cells in the lab by feeding the cells proteins and lipids designed to match those found in the corn and soy that farmers feed their ducks and geese, that alone was not enough to match the flavor and texture of farmed foie gras.

Foie gras sample.
A sampling of Gourmey foie gras
Photo by Jeremy Kahn

So the startup then had to do careful analysis of all the compounds present in foie gras to figure out exactly which ones were responsible for which aspects of the product’s taste, look, and feel, and then try to replicate those with plant-based oils and fats, which it combines with the lab-cultured liver cells. “It took about 600 to 650 different compound interactions from the start until we found a satisfying prototype version,” Morin-Forest says.

How did they do? A sample that Gourmey sent me to try looked a bit funny—a round patty about the size of a hockey puck, light brown in color and topped with a layer of yellow fat—but it smelled and tasted just like the real McCoy. The flavor and texture of the pinkish-taupe liver pâté was, to my palate at least, indistinguishable from the farm-produced stuff and, well, delicious.

Having figured out foie gras, Gourmey’s next target, Morin-Forest says, is duck magret. It then might move down-market into chicken fillets. Those waiting for the lab-grown bucket of wings, however, may have to be patient.

Correction, July 14: An earlier version of this story misidentified the company that has received approval to sell its lab-grown chicken in Singapore. It is Eat Just, not Upside Foods.

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