Author Paul Shapiro tried the first foie gras made in a laboratory – it was rich, buttery, savory, and very decadent, just as one would expect
As I sit in the Hampton Creek kitchen in January 2017, a team of scientists is hard at work behind me making the world’s first clean foie gras, while developing cell lines of various other species.
One of those scientists is Aparna Subramanian. A stem cell biologist with fifteen years of experience, Subramanian commutes to San Francisco every week from LA, where her husband and children live, to spend her time growing and feeding farm animal cell lines.
Two months prior, Eitan Fischer, director of the food technology company’s clean meat division, Project Jake, had reached out to her on LinkedIn. She at first thought it was a joke.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever worked on,” she says. “I didn’t think this was for real.”
She describes an experience from the early days of the Project Jake lab.
“To establish a new line, we have to source the starting material– the cells –from actual birds.”
They partnered with a local pasture-based farm to identify the highest-quality birds to painlessly source the cells from (there are even stem cells at the root of a detached feather, she explains).
“Ian” was the lucky chicken chosen for the task.
“We got Ian from the farm and brought him to his new backyard home where, rather than being slaughtered at only a few weeks old” – Subramanian tears up – “he’ll live out his life as a chicken should.”
Meeting Ian, she recounts, “reminded me that despite the many late nights in the lab, this is all worth it. We’re doing it for them.”
Since she is responsible for making some of the world’s first animal-free meat, the irony is that Subramanian – whose vegetarianism is religiously based – won’t get to taste the fruits, or meats, of her labor.
“It’s real meat,” she explains, “an animal product.”
Hampton Creek (now called JUST) is among a handful of startups with the goal of bringing “clean meat” and other cultured animal products into the mainstream.
Thanks to them, we may today be witnessing the start of the next food revolution: cellular agriculture, the process of growing real animal meat and other animal products in a lab while leaving the animals alone. Using technology first developed by academics and the medical field and now being commercialized by several startups, innovators are taking tiny biopsies of animals’ muscle and then culturing those cells to grow more muscle outside the animals’ bodies.
If these startups succeed, they may do more to upend our dysfunctional food system than perhaps any other innovation. They offer the promise of solving enormous environmental, food security and economic challenges posed by our growing global population – that is, assuming they get the funding, regulatory approval, and consumer acceptance necessary to market their products on a global scale.
Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, which he co-founded with Josh Balk in 2011 in an effort to produce plant-based alternatives to foods that traditionally require eggs, decided in 2016 to go all in on clean meat. With his company now valued at more than a billion dollars, he intends to start spending millions of dollars a year researching the race to commercialize clean meat.
Through this initiative, Hampton Creek is hoping to eliminate chicken suffering altogether. There are thirty-five million cattle slaughtered for food annually in the United States, compared to nearly nine billion chickens. Chickens, turkeys and ducks raised for meat are typically confined inside windowless warehouses by the tens of thousands for their entire lives.
As Hampton Creek’s Project Jake got started under Fischer, the research challenges quickly became clear.
“It has to be serum-free, for starters. That’s step number one,” Fischer says, acknowledging that the use of any animal-based blood serum to feed cells is really a nonstarter for both ethical and financial reasons. He goes on to describe the need for cheaper nutrients (“media”) to feed those cells.
“More importantly, we need growth factors or mimetics that are dramatically less expensive than now. It’s one thing to use them for medical tissue engineering. But for a commercial food application, we just have to bring the cost way, way down.”
Fischer and the second member on his team, David Bowman, were coming up with their initial research plan.
“What if we could get to market quickly with a technically easier-to-make product, but also one which would be a high-end luxury product that chefs and foodies everywhere would want to get their hands on?” Bowman asked the team.
He’d worked with liver cells before coming to Hampton Creek, and suggested that foie gras (fatty duck liver) particularly stood out: the delicacy product is marketed at such a high price that getting a clean version of it to be cost-competitive would be less difficult than trying to compete with commodity chicken at first.
Tetrick and Balk were intrigued.
“It’s a poultry product,” Fischer agreed, “making it a good candidate to start with, since the cell lines and media conditions would be relevant to similar products we want to make such as other duck meats, chicken liver, and other poultry products.”
The process, it turns out, really is easier than culturing muscle cells in vitro, as liver may be easier to grow without serum than muscle, which would slash the cost of production. Moreover, if you feed liver cells too much 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.
The dish has been a cultural flashpoint for years in the debates over animal welfare. In order to coax the bird’s liver to become fatty, producers must use a pipe to force-feed the birds daily more than they’d ever eat naturally, causing the liver to balloon up to 10 times its normal size.
Hampton Creek’s goal isn’t to focus on foie gras just to displace the fatty liver industry. Instead, it’s to build a complete technology platform, one that would enable the developments of countless products, and especially poultry.
But the path is still far from clear. The first question is whether actual foie gras consumers – people who may typically place a high value on what they perceive as an artisanal food – would even want to eat a lab-produced version. Fischer is optimistic.
It’s possible there are some foie gras consumers who’d prefer a cruelty-free version, but most people eating foie gras are aware of the controversy surrounding its production and yet still order it.
Many foie gras consumers may have as much fidelity to the “heritage” or tradition of foie gras as they do to its taste alone. Because of that uphill battle, Hampton Creek will have to ensure its fatty liver is truly on par with the traditional version, lest it appeal solely to those who today wouldn’t consider eating force-fed foie gras on ethical grounds.
Fischer projects that Hampton Creek’s product will be “the world’s highest-grade foie gras.”
Whether this will be enough to revolutionize the $3 billion global foie gras market is yet to be seen. But even if the product won’t be a bestseller anytime soon within the niche category, Fischer estimates that going this route will hasten the commercialization of the first clean-meat product, something that would not only generate major attention for Hampton Creek, but could also attract more research dollars as people see that commercialization is no longer theoretical.
And then there’s the added value of engaging in the foie gras business in California. Due to animal welfare concerns, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger terminated the practice in California, signing a 2004 bill that phased out production and sale of foie gras from force-fed birds by 2012. The law underwent many litigation challenges, but in September 2017 a federal court upheld the ban, meaning it’s illegal to sell foie gras in the Golden State if the birds were force-fed.
“What if Hampton Creek could be the only company to legally produce and sell foie gras in California?” Fischer only half jokes. “Think that’d get some headlines?”
With some early breakthroughs, Hampton Creek is now ready to begin taste testing its initial samples made with no animal serum, and I’m the first person outside of the company to get to try them.
Thomas Bowman, the lead chef on Project Jake, had, along with his brother David, been imagining this kind of moment for nearly a decade. The duo daydreamed about the possibility of making cultured foie gras since Thomas started cooking professionally and David began culturing liver cells, and now they were about to debut their fantasy product to an outsider.
“Foie,” as Thomas (and foie gras connoisseurs) calls it, “is regarded by top chefs as perhaps the most prized animal product today.”
The early prototype – which just like typical foie gras mousse is composed primarily of fatty duck liver, together with other ingredients – that he serves me looks like and smells of duck liver as far as I can tell.
“This pâté de foie gras,” he explains, “can go for up to one hundred dollars per pound in retail.” Fischer adds: “We already make it in a scalable process; it’s just a matter of time until the price points are where we need them to be.”
Solving a key problem in the cultured meat challenge – how to make meat without a continuous supply of nutrients from animals who needed to be raised and slaughtered – the Hampton Creek team was able to leverage its knowledge about the functionality of animal media ingredients to find viable animal-free replacements, much like the company had previously done with egg ingredients in mayo and cookies.
I’ve never eaten foie gras in my life, and I’d campaigned a decade earlier at the Humane Society of the United States to ban its sale, on animal cruelty grounds, in Chicago.
When California’s foie gras ban took effect in 2012, I regularly did public debates with chefs who defended their product. Their vehemence reminded me of George W Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully’s quip about such foie gras defenders, pondering just how “a man rising in angry defense of a table treat has any business telling other people to get serious.”
Yet here I was about to seriously consume actual foie gras.
Its beige color stood out on the white ceramic plate before me, fork and knife on either side with a high-end napkin; it looked almost as if I were in a fine French restaurant. As I sat down with a crowd of Hampton Creek staff watching and awaiting my reaction, I felt my stomach churn just a bit at the thought of what I was about to do. Knowing that no duck was actually slaughtered was sufficient to persuade the rational side of my brain, but my visceral reaction was still intense.
I cut a piece of the foie gras with my fork, raised it to my mouth, took a breath, and slowly pressed the foie gras with my tongue against the roof of my mouth. The flavor was impressive. The pâté was rich, buttery, savory, and very decadent, just as one would expect. I’m certainly not the best judge in this case, but as I closed my eyes and let the fatty liver melt on my tongue, the Hampton Creek foie gras brought me an amount of pleasure I’ll confess I was a little embarrassed to admit. There’s just something about fat that really makes the human brain happy.
My typical experience in that realm would be compared to eating a fatty food like guacamole – which certainly does produce a lot of happiness – but this foie gras was in another league altogether. As other members of the Hampton Creek culinary team joined in to taste the newest iteration, reactions varied from surprise to relief.
Fischer joked, “I had protested foie gras as a college student, and here I am, eating it every other week.” Even with my positive reaction, the team pressed back that it still wasn’t where they wanted it to be.
Since this may end up being the first cultured meat to ever be commercialized, anything less than total perfection would be a letdown for them. “Until it scores better than the force-fed version on our blind tests, not a single consumer will buy this product,” says Thomas.
Still, Tetrick keeps his eye on his biggest prize. After tasting some of the company’s clean foie gras after I’d had my sample, he declared that “foie gras is great. It’s an achievement we’ll be proud of and perhaps it builds a bridge. But we know where that bridge is leading. We want to render the current model of meat production totally obsolete.”
On the screen, he flips through some of Hampton Creek’s drawn up models for a future four-hundred-thousand-square-foot meat production facility: two hundred bioreactors, producing seventy-six pounds of bluefin tuna per second, alongside clean Kobe beef, and – ultimately – what he boasts will be the best chicken meat the world has ever seen.
“Our goal is to make this stuff so obviously better, that there’d never be a reason to choose the conventional kind.” Showing off their proposed timeline, he tells me, “By 2025, we’ll build the first of these facilities, and here” – he points to 2030– “we’re the world’s largest meat company.”
The plan right now is to make the first sale of an animal product made without requiring the use of an animal by 2018, at a price “within shouting distance” of the conventional product, says Tetrick. When I press him as to what he defines as “shouting distance,” he offers 30% higher as a goal for the initial commercial offerings.
But he insists the problem isn’t solved until clean meat undercuts the prices of meat today. To do that, Hampton Creek has more work ahead of it to reduce the costs of its plant-based media. Within the next five years, Tetrick estimates, they’ll get there. Already they’ve produced clean chicken nugget prototypes, and consumed them – as depicted in a short film they produced – in Ian’s presence. I asked Tetrick how he can be so optimistic.
“Look, we already have 7.5 billion people mouths to feed on the planet.” Tetrick pushes back against theoretical opposition to commercializing his ultimate product. “They need to be fed, and so do the coming billions who’ll soon be here. I’m quite confident that huge developing nations – especially since this is going to solve so many food-safety problems – are going to be very happy to have our product when it’s more affordable than their current meat. Even if the EU doesn’t want it at first, countries like Israel, China, and Brazil will. After all, what we’ll be selling is just chicken.”
The CEO pauses for a second and contemplates. “That’s actually a good name for it: Just Chicken.”