Many 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 did not eat meat generally, she could not do without pate foie gras. Everyday.
Pate 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. Birds spend their lives in semi-darkness. Till 8 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 8 and 10 weeks old. For 12 to 21 days, ducks and geese are subjected to gavage. Every day, between 2 and 4 pounds of grain and fat are forced down the birds’ throats through a feeding tube. The tube “is pushed 5 inches down their throats, and more food than they want is gunned into their stomachs three times a day.
If the mushy corn sticks … a stick is sometimes used to force it down.” 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 the ducks/geese are lame and unable to walk without using their wings for support. Some ducks moved by pushing their bodies along the floor. 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 2 or 3 lb (1.0-1.5 kg), (these livers are felt every day by farm workers, causing even more pain to the bird that is already in agony from the unnatural feeding and damage to its food pipe, its forced restraints and its huge liver), 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 (which is the meat of a baby calf starved to death so that its meat turns white). This paste is pressed down to form a cake.
The product is exported to all parts of the world in several forms-the paste in tins, the plain cooked livers, sausages and purée. Pate is served as an appetiser with bread or crackers.
France produces more than 20,000 tons of foie gras each year. Only five countries still produce foie gras: Belgium, Romania, Spain, France and Hungary.
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 per cent 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 Pate Foie Gras in this way. With its team of food scientists, biochemists, and engineers, Hampton Creek is a technology rather than a food company.
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 KaShing, the wealthiest person in Asia. Gates’ 2013 documentary, The Future of Food, features the company. 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 of dollars 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. She takes the birds from a local farm and removes some cells for the starting material. Why Pate?
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.
The 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 – since no traditional pate eater cares about the cruelty part.
“Until it scores better than the force-fed version on our blind tests, not a single consumer will buy this product” The company projects that Hampton Creek’s product will be “the world’s highest-grade foie gras.”
The current sales of foie gras are $3 billion globally. Its sale is banned in California (banned in 2004 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it overcame all its legal challenges to become operative in 2017) 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.
“Foie gras is regarded by top chefs as perhaps the most prized animal product today. It can be sold for upto a hundred dollars a pound. “ Tasters of the Hampton Creek pate say the pâté is meaty, rich, buttery, savoury, and very decadent. Hampton Creek wants to be the world’s largest meat company by 2030 – producing tones of bluefin tuna, Kobe beef and chicken meat of all kinds – without using a single animal. “We want to render the current model of meat production totally obsolete. Our goal is to make the meat so obviously better, that there’d never been a reason to choose the conventional kind.”
The plan right now is to commercialise Pate Foie Gras, the first cultured meat of an animal product made without using animal. 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.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact [email protected], www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)