Paris start-up creates lab-grown foie gras to avoid force-feeding of ducks and geese

It's the quintessential French delicacy, but increasingly targeted by animal welfare activists: Can foie gras grown from duck cells find a place at the table for gourmet food fans?

Paris start-up creates lab-grown foie gras to avoid force-feeding of ducks and geese
Traditional foie gras involves force-feeding ducks. Photo: Philippe LOPEZ / AFP.

That’s the goal for Gourmey, a Paris-based venture that raised €8.5 million from European and US investors this month to perfect its recipe for making fattened duck liver in a lab.

“There’s a very strong need for an alternative to regular foie gras, a controversial product that needs to re-invent itself,” said Nicolas Morin-Forest, one of Gourmey’s three founders. “We want to show that cultured meat is not limited to burgers but can also be used for gastronomic products.”

Duck livers, a speciality of southwest France in particular, are prized either on their own – star chef Alain Ducasse has served it seared with braised pears – or cooked as a velvety foie gras paté.

It is obtained by force-feeding ducks with a tube stuck down their throats, a practice denounced by critics as unnecessarily cruel and distressing for the animals.

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California has outlawed foie gras sales for years and New York plans to do so next year.

Britain prohibits foie gras production and is weighing a ban on sales, while European Parliament lawmakers proposed last month to prohibit the forced feeding of ducks or geese, another source of foie gras.

Mass meat production is also in the cross-hairs of environmental campaigners who say the industry consumes too much water and energy while producing huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas.

“With more 9.5 billion human beings on the planet in 2050, we’re going to have to be producing much more meat – the conventional models that require significant resources won’t be enough,” Morin-Forest said.

’90 percent there’

Housed in a university research lab, Gourmey has spent the past two years developing their process for faux livers able to pass muster with chefs and food fans.

Its founders include Antoine Davydoff, a cellular biologist, and Victor Sayous, a doctoral student in molecular biology, and they now have around 20 employees.

“In terms of taste and texture, we’re 90 percent there,” said Sayous, who hails from the foie gras heartland of southwest France. “Last Christmas I served it to my family on toasts, alongside traditional foie gras, without telling them. Some were blown away and hadn’t noticed the difference.”

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Their recipe starts with taking cells from the fertilised duck egg and placing them in an aluminium “cultivator” where they swim in a nutrient solution maintained at 37C.

As the cells divide and multiply, their “food” is adjusted to promote the growth of liver cells that are ready after two to three weeks.

A little vegetable fat is then added to obtain the creamy consistency, and chefs have been brought in to help fine-tune the results.

“It has taken us over 600 attempts. Several times a week we taste different formulas, and we’ve ended up with a recipe that is pretty decent, even if it’s not yet perfect,” Morin-Forest said.

Will it fly?

With its latest funding round, Gourmey will move to a 1,000 square metre facility in central Paris aimed at proving to investors the viability of large-scale production.

The start-up also aims to lower its costs and plans to start growing chicken, turkey and duck meats.

But first its foie gras will need certification from health authorities – so far only Singapore has approved lab-grown meat, for chicken nuggets made by a US firm.

Initially Gourmey will look to market its livers in the US and Asia, “where there is both an obvious need and a more advanced regulatory climate,” Morin-Forest said.

Closer to home, requests will be evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority. But winning over officials might prove tricky.

“Count on me, in France meat will always be natural and never artificial!” Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie tweeted last December.

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

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The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!