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Foie gras is often part of a French holiday meal, but the way it’s made — force-feeding ducks or geese to fatten up their livers — makes some people think twice before eating it. Alternatives are gaining momentum.

Sales of vegetarian or “fake” foie gras are on the rise in France as people seek to avoid force-feeding the birds and as the delicacy rises in price due to a massive outbreak of bird flu that has hit duck and poultry farms and reduced supply.

“Most of the people who came to buy weren’t even vegan or vegetarian,” chef Julie Bevant says of her 200 packs. no foie gras (neither liver nor fat) she sold last year.

“They just didn’t want to be involved in foie gras because it’s really ugly.”

Find this story on the Spotlight on France podcast:

France in the spotlight, episode 86 © RFI

Bavanta’s recipe – based on cashews, white miso, coconut oil, yeast extract and agar-agar – produces a pâté that has the texture of cooked foie gras,

“It’s not the same, but why not try?” Bavant asks, sitting at a table in Cafe Kline, the restaurant and grocery store where she runs the kitchen and where she prepares her vegan foie gras.

That convinced a lot of people – especially her daughter, who used to eat meat but decided to go vegan about a decade ago for ethical reasons.

One Christmas, Bavant’s daughter had difficulty resisting eating foie gras, prompting her mother to help.

“I thought you’d go to all this effort and screw it up just for a bit of foie gras because you really like it and don’t want to miss out on it for Christmas?” It’s a waste.”

Ethical dilemmas

Going vegan is one way to avoid the ethical dilemmas foie gras involves probeor force-feeding geese or ducks to cause them to store fat in their livers, which sometimes double in size.

Some see this process as animal cruelty. Under the European Union’s Convention on Animal Rights, force-feeding would be considered abuse and therefore illegal, but there are exceptions for countries traditionally associated with the process, like France.

Traditional foie gras producers argue that geese and ducks are migratory birds that naturally accumulate fat, so force-feeding is natural.

Remy Burselin agrees that storing fat is natural, but he found a way to get birds to store it without having to shove food down their throats.

A duck is force-fed corn on a farm in southwestern France.
A duck is force-fed corn on a farm in southwestern France. © Bob Edme/AP

Foie gras without force feeding?

A researcher at the Institute of Health and Medicine Inserm Burzelin studied the interaction between intestinal bacteria and metabolism.

After seeing the link between gut bacteria and fatty liver disease in humans and rodents, he turned to geese and developed a bacterial mixture to feed to newborn chicks that causes their livers to fatten up for months.

The result is foie gras the size of a normal liver.

“We don’t have a liver that is twice the normal size than a liver in response to force-feeding. It’s still full of fat, but in a size that matches the host’s biology,” explains Burselin, who co-founded Aviwell to develop the process on an experimental farm in southwestern France.

Cans of foie gras, which is often served at festive events in France.
Cans of foie gras, which is often served at festive events in France. © Loic Venance/AFP

Burselin eats the entire foie gras and avoids judgments about the ethics of force-feeding, saying simply that he wants to “offer an alternative.”

The chefs responded well to the result, finding that livers that were not force-fed were less bitter and firmer when cooked.

“The structure of the liver is stronger because the liver cells have had time to grow properly and accumulate fat over time, while during forced feeding, which is about one to two weeks, the fat cells do not have time to rebuild,” Burzelin explains.

“That’s why when you cook it, most of the time it melts in the pan when you fry it. Ours is not.”

Aviwell is still experimenting with what it calls “naturally fatty liver” because it hasn’t been approved to call it foie gras.

Burselin tried to appease traditional foie gras farmers by saying he was producing a more luxury or niche product and would not threaten their way of working.

However, foie gras without the ethical baggage of force-feeding, which has impressed chefs with its taste and quality, may seem like the stuff of dreams.

“We offer an alternative path,” Burzelin says simply. “Everyone will decide for themselves whether it makes sense to buy our alternative options or traditional options.”

Listen to an interview with Burselin and Bavant on the Spotlight on France podcast here.