In 2010, Rémy Burcelin was mulling over research results in his laboratory when he made a discovery that could revolutionize the way foie gras is made.
Burcelin, a medical scientist based in France, had discovered a type of gut bacteria that’s responsible for the accumulation of fat in the human liver. He wondered whether the same bacteria existed in geese because of the amount of fat they need to store for migration.
In order to make foie gras, farmers force feed ducks and geese through tubes, a method known as gavage. If this bacteria did exist in geese, Burcell figured it could be used to accelerate liver growth in birds naturally in order to bypass the controversial force-feeding method, which has been decried by animal rights activists.
Burcelin pitched his idea to fellow researcher and farm owner, Gérard Campistron, who agreed to lend his farm to test Burcelin’s hypothesis. They also partnered with Genevieve Benard, a veterinarian who specialized in geese and duck liver health. Together, the trio founded a startup called Aviwell in 2014 and, a year later, they began experiments to see if they could naturally develop fatty livers in birds.
Since then, Burcelin and his team have successfully made foie gras for three consecutive years through their method. “It’s important to tell the rest of the planet that there’s an alternative,” he says.
To make its foie gras, Aviwell buys goslings or ducklings from local farmers and feeds them a bacterial mixture. The farmers raise the birds for another three or four weeks before the startup brings them to its own farm for specialized feeding. There, Burcelin says, ducks and geese are fed with organic milled corn on a schedule that mimics how the birds would eat if they were preparing for migration and allows them to naturally store fat. They reach full growth at about 10 weeks and then they are taken to a slaughter house only a few kilometres away.
Aviwell birds roam their farm field. Photo courtesy of Aviwell
This year, the startup’s farm housed 300 birds, but Burcelin says they’re currently looking for investments with the hope of scaling up their production to 10,000 birds a year.
New York City Council recently voted to ban foie gras that is manufactured through force feeding, joining California and other countries that have prohibited gavage products. Burcelin hopes his foie gras will provide an ethical alternative for the chefs and restaurateurs that still want to serve the dish.
“Do you want to eat foie gras? You have the choice — the classical way or the ethical way. And that is an important choice for human beings,” he says.
Aviwell products haven’t hit international markets yet, but domestically, the company has been selling to French chefs over the past two years. Their product is also set to hit the shelves of a high-end grocery store in southern France around Christmas time.
Burcelin says the foie gras is “extremely tasty.” When asked if it’s tastier than the classically made version, he said “this is too subjective,” but that the chefs who have bought the product “love it.”