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Soon, world’s first clean foie gras

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Years ago, I asked a stylish, older, film actress from Mumbai whether she would be the ambassador of my animal welfare organisation People for Animals. I had been to her house twice for dinner, and she had made the most amazing vegetarian food, and kept grumbling about how awful meat was.

She refused, and her explanation was that while she didn’t eat meat generally, she could not do without pâté foie gras. Everyday.

Pâté foie gras is French for fat liver paste. It is a luxury item because few countries allow it to be made, due to the extreme cruelty involved. It is the cancerous liver of a duck or goose fattened by force in a process known as gavage. The birds here spend their lives in semi-darkness. Till eight weeks old they are confined to cages to prevent exercise, and fed a diet designed to promote rapid growth. Force-feeding begins when the birds are between eight and 10 weeks old. For 12 to 21 days, ducks and geese are subjected to gavage. Every day, between two and four pounds of grain and fat are forced down the birds’ throats through a feeding tube. The birds’ livers, which become engorged from a carbohydrate-rich diet, grow to be more than 10 times their normal size (a disease called hepatic steatosis). Most of these ducks/geese are lame and unable to walk without using their wings for support. All of them are severely stressed and ill. Most throats develop skin lesions and neck wounds, and get maggots in them. The carcasses show wing fractures and severe tissue damage to the throat muscles.

When the bird’s liver weighs two or three pounds (1.0 to 1.5 kilograms), (these livers are felt every day by farm workers, causing even more pain to the bird that is already in agony), its throat is slit and the liver taken out. The rest of the bird is thrown away.

French chef Jean-Joseph Clause created and popularised pâté de foie gras in 1779, and was awarded a gift of twenty pistols by King Louis XVI (probably to kill more animals). He obtained a patent for the dish in 1784 and began a business supplying pâté to the rich. By 1827, Strasberg (and now Toulouse) was known as the goose-liver capital of the world.

Pâté is made by removing the veins, gristle and membrane. The liver is chopped and made into a paste combined with wine, salt, herbs, mushrooms and sometimes veal. This paste is pressed down to form a cake. The product is exported to all parts of the world. Pâté is served as an appetiser with bread or crackers.

Only five countries still produce foie gras: Belgium, Romania, Spain, France, and Hungary. France produces more than 20,000 tons of foie gras each year.

In July 2014 India banned the import of foie gras. Its production is banned in 35 countries, including Australia, Argentina, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Turkey, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Israel, and the United Kingdom. However, foie gras can still be imported into, and purchased in, these countries. The European Union is working to phase out the force-feeding of birds entirely by 2020.

While it is banned in California, it is made in a few goose/duck farms in America.

Foie gras is unhealthy for humans. It derives 85 percent of its calories from fat: A 2-ounce serving contains 25 grams of fat and 85 milligrams of cholesterol.

Companies all over the world are now working furiously on creating meat from animal cells. The end product already has a name: clean meat. The science for cultured meat is an outgrowth of the field of biotechnology known as tissue engineering.

The initial stage of growing cultured meat is to collect cells that proliferate rapidly – embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, myosatellite cells or myoblasts. The cells are treated by applying a protein that promotes tissue growth. They are then placed in a culture medium, in a bio-reactor, which is able to supply the cells with the energy requirements they need. Nutrients and oxygen are delivered close to each growing cell.

To culture three-dimensional meat, the cells are grown on an edible scaffold.

It has been claimed that, conditions being ideal, two months of cultured meat production could deliver up to 50,000 tons of meat from ten pork muscle cells. Scientists have already identified growth media for turkey, fish, sheep, and pig muscle cells.

Once the scale and cost are dealt with, the price of cultured, or clean meat, will come down to the same levels as animal meat.

A company called Hampton Creek Foods, founded in 2011 in California by Josh Tetrick and Josh Balk, has chosen to make pâté foie gras in this way. As of 2014, it has secured $30 million in funding, and is backed by six billionaires including Bill Gates, Jerry Yang (founder of Yahoo), and Li Ka-Shing, the wealthiest person in Asia. Hampton Creek has signed agreements with Fortune 500 companies and is now valued at 1 billion dollars. Its food is sold across the States and many of its items, like egg-alternative mayonnaise, are the highest sellers of their kind, beating the egg based varieties.

They are now spending millions on making the world’s first clean foie gras, while developing cell lines for various other meats. Like most of the clean food companies in America, many of their scientists are Indian. One of those scientists is a stem cell biologist called Aparna Subramanian who grows the farm animal cell lines.

Why pâté? The company feels that it is a high end luxury product which is technically easier to make by multiplying cells, and which chefs and foodies want as it is a status symbol. Because it is already so expensive, getting a cultured version of it to be cost-competitive is easier than trying to compete with other poultry products at first.

Liver is easier and cheaper to grow than muscle. If you feed liver cells a lot of sugar, they get fattier and fattier, to the point where they mimic the hepatic lipidosis that’s induced in ducks and geese when they’re force-fed to produce the delicacy.

Trials are on to get the cultured fatty liver to the exact taste of the current foie gras in the market.

The current sales of foie gras are $3 billion globally. Its sale is banned in California. So, if Hampton Creek became the first company to be allowed to sell foie gras in California, it would headline the progress that clean meats are making.

Tasters of the Hampton Creek pâté say the pâté is meaty, rich, buttery, savoury, and very decadent. The plan right now is to comercialise it. Once it is on the market I will send masses of it to the actress, and then perhaps she will agree to be our brand ambassador.

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