Imagine a world in which Orthodox Jews turn on lights, respond to emails and drive electric cars on Shabbat. While this alternative reality seems far-fetched, the everyday use of electricity is a relatively new convenience that authorities on halacha (religious Jewish law) have had to reckon with, deciding how to treat such contemporary phenomena within the bounds of ancient Jewish law.
Today, we may be on the cusp of a similarly revolutionary head-scratcher—this time in regards to meat production. Many expect that in the not-too-distant future, much of our meat supply could be grown through cellular reproduction, in labs or warehouses, instead of harvested from animals slaughtered for meat. This begs an important halachic question: What makes meat “meat”? More specifically, if meat was never part of a living animal, should it still be considered meat for kosher purposes? The answer could shape how religious Jews eat for the next millennia. Who knows? In the near future, there could be a kosher cheeseburger joint.
“Lab-grown” meat, sometimes called “cultured” meat, “vitro” meat, or “clean” meat, may sound like science fiction, but the technology exists and is extremely promising. Some believe it may eventually replace traditional meat production methods altogether. Lab-grown meat is made by harvesting muscle cells from animals and then using cellular reproduction mechanisms to grow substantial portions of that muscle.
While the product is not quite ready for supermarkets, as it currently can take four to six weeks to grow a single serving, it is improving quickly. In 2013, the first piece of lab-grown meat suitable for human consumption became available, albeit with a shocking sticker price of $325,000. Companies like Israeli start-up Aleph Farms are already aiming to make affordable lab-grown meat an option in supermarkets by 2023. A report conducted by consulting firm AT Kearney estimates that by 2040, 35% of all meat could be lab-grown.
Lab-grown meat may be particularly appealing to teens. According to Vegworld, 35% of Generation Z wants to be meat-free or eat less meat by 2021. “Evidence suggests the shift is coming primarily from younger generations who place animal welfare, personal health, and the climate crisis at the forefront of their consumer choices,” according to the article. Lab-grown meat could improve on traditional meat production methods in each of these areas. The manufacturing process results in healthier meat that both has controlled nutrients and is free of exposure to disease. Importantly, it also does not harm animals in the process, likely results in less waste, and, in general, flaunts a lower carbon footprint. In the case of kosher meat, the reduced waste advantage is significant, as sometimes animals are slaughtered but are then found to be non-kosher due to imperfections in the animal (for example, marks on the lungs) or in the ritual slaughter process.
Because the technology is advancing so rapidly and lab experiments are seamlessly transforming into commercial products, Judaic authorities have started to grapple with what these advancements mean for kashrut. Of course, as of right now, the consensus is that there is yet to be a full consensus. Professor Joe M. Regenstein of Cornell University’s Department of Food Science, with whom I had an email correspondence, views the debate as still ongoing and anticipates the collective decision-making process on lab-grown meat to follow a similar path to that of GMO foods. The professor, also a frequent industry consultant on kashrut and halal, explains that “the certification agencies will probably make pragmatic decisions from their poskim [religious authorities] and then the rest of the rabbis [from outside the agencies] may chime in. I think that is… how the initial decisions on GMO got done.”
A number of authorities have begun sifting through the myriad of issues involved in determining whether lab-grown meat is indeed kosher and, if so, whether it is meat or pareve (neither meat nor dairy, according to dietary laws). For example, experts are questioning what to designate cell cultures that originate from a non-kosher animal. Is the meat itself kosher? Stated differently, is lab-grown bacon potentially kosher? A handful have interjected with claims that the meat is probably not kosher. Does the original animal have to have been ritually slaughtered? Likely. And, of course—the ultimate question—can lab-grown meat be eaten alongside dairy? The early results are mixed. A few have concluded it cannot be, while others are not as sure.
The meat-or-not-meat debate is all the more pressing now in light of the clamor of news about kashrut rulings, namely the Orthodox Union’s recent announcement that it will not be certifying Impossible Pork — not because its ingredients are nonkosher, but because of the optics of certifying a product with the name “pork.” That ruling is an example of kosher authorities taking into account social and religious issues beyond the chemistry of the product or how it is produced.
Ultimately, Professor Regenstein says the issue is moot for now. “The plant substitutes are already starting to show market resistance, and I am not optimistic that cell-cultured meat will catch on in the marketplace,” he said. “And if it is ruled to be meat, it has a limited future for kosher [consumers].” Still, he acknowledges that if consumers do take to lab-grown meat—and the price is right—“that cheeseburger might become real.”