Cultured, Clean, or Cloned: No Matter What You Call It, Is Cellular Agriculture The Future of Meat?

On December 2, 2020, the New York Times announced that Good Meat, a division of Just Foods, a U.S. based food company known mainly for its plant-based egg and mayonnaise replacements, won approval from Singapore to sell its lab-based chicken in a restaurant. They hailed this as the first time in the world that lab-based meats were being sold to the public. In fact, Supermeat, an Israeli startup, opened its test kitchen restaurant, The Chicken, to the public on an invitation-only basis in November, so it was, in fact, the first restaurant open to the public serving lab grown meats.

chicken fillet sandwich
The Chicken Restaurant, Israel

 

Other companies in Israel, the US and around the world are racing to produce chicken, beef and pork from cells. In early February, Aleph Farms, another Israeli startup, announced that its 3D bioprinting technology produced the world’s first cultivated meat ribeye steak, shown above (image credit, Aleph Farms/Technion – Israel Institute of Technology). What is lab-grown meat? What is its appeal to vegans or meat eaters? What are the advantages and challenges? And what are the kosher implications?

Cellular Agriculture is the industry term for creating meat from animal cells that are cultured in a lab and grown to produce real muscle and fat tissue. Other terms sometimes used include lab meat, clean meat, cultured meat, cultivated meat, and cloned meat. Unlike plant-based meat substitutes (such as the Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat, or startups like Redefine Meat, the products of cellular agriculture are actual meat, but they are created without raising, feeding, slaughtering, and processing animals (with the exception of obtaining the initial cells, see discussion below).

While clean meat would certainly not appeal to most ideological vegans, many people who have embraced a vegan diet (or increasingly vegan diet) may find the product appealing. Few or no animals are harmed, food safety (freedom from contamination) is more easily assured, the and environmental impacts of production are astronomically lessened, all the while the end product is (at least in theory) identical to meat from slaughtered animals (we are not there yet, of course). These are factors that motivate most people who purchase vegan foods, so the market is certainly viable. Given these factors, once the quality of the product is achieved and the cost becomes comparable to regular meat, the advantages would be such that the majority of the meat market could well be cellular agriculture-based.

What are the implications for people who observe kosher laws?

As with the application of Jewish law to any new technology, there are different opinions as to how to treat clean meat. Partly, this is due to the changes of a rapidly evolving technology; much of halacha is fact based, and as the facts change, so does the legal consequences. There are numerous excellent articles that treat this subject in depth: 1, 2, 3, 4. It should also be noted that while the overwhelming majority of kosher certifications are maintained by orthodox affiliated rabbis and organizations, the Conservative movement also weighs in on these issues and their conclusions are largely in line with that of the orthodox authorities. The following is a summary of the major issues and conclusions, and as a summary, it glosses over the details.

The primary factors that will determine whether the clean meat product is kosher, and how it is classified, are: (1) the source of the original cells, and (2) the nature of the growth medium.

Source Cells

One of the selling points in the clean meat industry is that animals are not harmed in the process, the cells are obtained from a living animal. If the source cells are extracted from a part of the animal that is considered edible (muscle or fat tissue), that impacts the kosher status. While there are contrary opinions, the majority consensus appears to be that such cells cannot be taken from a living animal, only from an animal that is a kosher species and properly slaughtered. This is, incidentally, the parallel approach taken in Islamic Law for the product to be considered Halal (Hamdan MN, Post MJ, Ramli MA, Mustafa AR. Cultured Meat in Islamic Perspective. J Relig Health. 2018 Dec;57(6):2193-2206. doi: 10.1007/s10943-017-0403-3. PMID: 28456853

Practically speaking, this means that, like today, there is likely to be a separate market for kosher, Halal, and non-kosher clean meat, unless the major manufactures choose to make their mass-market products kosher and/or halal. It is not clear whether the cost of doing so would be economically practical. The lab/factory would require supervision just as any other manufactured food product to assure the supply chain consists of only kosher approved items.

Recent developments for making muscle cells from feathers may change the dynamic. If hair or skin cells can be used, then it is possible that the animal need not be slaughtered and perhaps need not be from a kosher species at all (thus raising the possibility of kosher pork).

This is because inedible portions of an animal are not prohibited as food, at least in theory.

A cheeseburger with real meat and cheese? Not yet. Photo by Alexas Fotos from Pexels

However, the prevailing opinion, at least in the U.S. is that regardless of whether it comes from hair, feather or skin, it would have to come from a kosher animal that was kosher slaughtered. At least one prominent Israeli rabbi suggested that transforming cells into meat is the creation of something new and that any product would be kosher, but this is not the prevailing view in the United States.

A related issue is whether or not the resulting product is considered “meat.” Kosher rules distinguish between products classified as “meat,” “dairy,” and “pareve” (neutral). Meat and dairy cannot be cooked or eaten together, so restaurants are classified by type, and cannot serve milk if they serve steak. If cultured meat is classified as meat, it will be subject to the same dietary law restrictions.

If on the other hand, it is considered pareve (like kosher bovine gelatin, which is derived from bones or skins of kosher animals, or according to some authorities even from non-kosher animals), then it would be possible to serve it with dairy foods: a cheeseburger, steak with butter sauce, etc. Jewish law is divided into Torah precepts, which are the strictest, and rabbinic laws, for which there is more flexibility. However, one of the leading authorities for US kosher supervision has determined that cultured meat made from muscle and fat cells would be treated as meat, at least rabbinically. They have not made a ruling for meat derived from skin, hair, or feather cells (at least for chicken made feather cells, there might be additional leeway to classify it as pareve, but no ruling has been made yet).

Growth Medium

Early experiments used fetal bovine serum, though the industry has moved toward non-animal sources for a growth medium. It may not be apparent why the growth medium would be an issue, since what an animal eats is not considered an issue in its kosher status (nearly all animals eat items that are not kosher) and growth medium is the functional equivalent of food. Nonetheless, many kosher authorities treat it as an ingredient in a food rather than part of a biologic process, and insist that it too must be kosher certified. Given that the industry intent is to create a plant based source, companies seeking kosher certification should be able to obtain certification for the grown medium.

Summary

The environmental, food safety, and other benefits of replacing conventional meat production with cellular agriculture could eventually make this the predominant means of producing meat.

The opportunity exists to create cultured meats that meet the requirements for Jewish and Islamic dietary laws, possibly on a mass scale which would dramatically reduce the cost differential that makes these conventional meats meeting these requirements cost significantly more than meats sold on the mass market.

While some issues still need resolution, the likely requirement to use kosher (and halal) slaughtered permitted animals will create a conflict with animal welfare groups (and some manufactures) that demand that no animal be killed to produce the meat, thus dividing the market to some extent.

If cellular agriculture can produce a pareve meat that is otherwise identical to meat and receive approval from mainstream kosher authorities, it would be a major gamechanger for the kosher food industry, potentially eliminating the distinction between meat and dairy foods (a similar situation could occur through producing pareve dairy proteins and fats through cellular agriculture, which is far less controversial from a kosher standpoint; indeed, one company has already obtained pareve status approval from the U.S. based Orthodox Union).

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