This seeming contradiction in terms may soon become a commercially viable reality. According to a recent article published by The Guardian, a California-based company, Hampton Creek, which develops plant-based alternatives to animal products, has recently entered the arena of laboratory-grown meat and has jumped into the deep end by tackling one of the most controversial animal products on the market – foie gras.
Under current farming practices, foie gras is made from the livers of geese and ducks that have been force-fed for up to 18 days. The force-feeding is done by inserting a tube down the throat of the bird and driving more food than the bird would naturally consume into the throat of the bird in a matter of 2-3 seconds, two to three times a day. The over-feeding in this manner causes a physiological response in the birds liver which results in the liver becoming enlarged to between six and ten times its normal size and extremely fatty. The livers are then harvested and used in various cuisines.
By contrast, Hampton Creek has developed a method of harvesting, culturing and producing high-quality fatty liver tissue that almost completely excludes live birds. The stem cells that are used to grow the tissue in the lab are harvested from the base of feathers of birds and, unlike previous laboratory meat-growing efforts, Hampton Creek’s method of culturing liver tissue also does not require animal blood serum to provide the nutrition needed for cell growth, instead using non-animal derivatives to fulfill this function. In short, the only thing Hampton Creek needs from the birds is a few feathers.
The product is not perfect, according to Hampton Creek, but is getting there. For the company laboratory-grown foie gras forms one part of a larger vision for ethically produced animal products. This is a major scientific and ethical breakthrough for a product that is largely abhorred by the general public because of the barbarism involved in its production. It also opens the door to many new ethical questions around farming, meat production and laboratory-grown meat which society will have to address in future.