It would be hard to find a Jew on planet earth who has not grappled with the thought and desire of eating a cheeseburger. The Jewish laws surrounding milk and meat are well known and for those wishing to observe halacha/Jewish law this tasty combination has been off the menu for a very long time. However, times are changing, health concerns are continuing to rise, and recently there has been significant development of the market for what is known as artificial or clean meat. In the Jewish world this has caused quite a stir as many have asked the question what will the status of the new lab-grown burgers be? Will they have meat status? Do they need to be Kosher?
Following the topic addressed a few weeks back on choosing the gender of one’s baby via PGS, this is another fascinating area of innovation which requires a thorough engagement with Jewish sources and ideas to establish what the approaches would be. It will be no surprise to hear that the Talmud does not discuss the status of meat grown in a laboratory.
Before we mine the Jewish texts, it is crucial to establish what is actually happening in the production of artificial meat. This is not as simple as it sounds, because due to the competitive nature of this development, the companies involved are not fully sharing how exactly they manufacture the meat. This will no doubt over time change, but in the meantime we can explore the general methods which are known.
To summarise the process, the laboratories take a myoblast cell from an animal, which is an early stage cell that is already differentiated enough to produce meat (you don’t want to end up with a slab of bone or hair). The myoblast cell is then placed in a culture medium (which can be blood or non-animal based) in a bio-reactor. Then the cells are placed on a plant-based scaffold on which the tissue grows.
These slabs of meat are identical to real meat but are grown in the laboratory. Interestingly, NASA were the first to pioneer this process to create sustainable food supply for long term space travel. (For those star trek lovers out there, this may sound familiar.) Since NASA attempted this back in 2002, it has become increasingly popular and the price of a synthetic burger has dropped from around $300,000 to around $10, and is still dropping.
Once we understand the method of manufacture, we can move to the next stage of the halachic process – asking the right questions. Now this may sound trite but it is a crucial part of halachic methodology. If one is not sensitive to all the relevant concerns in Jewish law then the subject cannot be grappled with appropriately. Todays’ Jewish scholars have been working on this and have raised the following points:
How do we evaluate the status of artificial meat which grew from cells in a lab as opposed to grown out in the fields?
If the original cell comes from a shechted, kosher animal, will the end product be considered meat?
If the original cell is taken from a live animal, could this fall under the prohibition of ever min hachai/taking flesh from a live animal, and would it make a difference what type of cell was used
If the original cell came from a non-kosher animal would that mean the resulting meat is non-kosher?
What impact does the medium have in which the cell is cultured, what if that is compiled of non-kosher meat.
As you might have guessed by now, this is a multifaceted and complex new process and therefore how Halacha will apply will follow suit in this regard. Full scholarly articles have been written but for now we will map out the relevant issues.
Jewish law has plenty to say on mixtures containing kosher and non-kosher substances. Although a product may contain a non-kosher substance, if this is undetectable to the naked eye or it is drowned out by being mixed with kosher substances then in many, but not all cases, this non-kosher substance will be nullified.
Bacteria is a good example where in theory it’s a living being and not kosher but practically we ignore it as its not visible unless under a microscope. Another example would be where a drop of milk, fell into a pot of chicken soup. If the drop is less than one 60th of the soup and you cannot taste the milk – again this technically forbidden mixture is entirely permitted. An important factor here here is that a Jew would not be allowed to make this mixture on purpose, but if it was done by accident, or done by a gentile for their own benefit it would be permitted.
Bringing this back to artificial meat, we can immediately see the relevance and application of these rules just mentioned. On the one hand, we cannot see the original cell with the naked eye and furthermore it is definitely less than one 60th of the final product. However, this original cell is the basis for the entire product, unlike a bacteria or a drop of milk in chicken soup, not to mention the culture process which may also involve non-kosher substances.
Standing slightly further back, it is also discussed how significant it should be that the artificial meat looks and tastes just like meat. We all know that chicken was given meat status which implies a deep concern for the visual and experiential aspect of the product in question.
Another concern raised here is maarit ayin/giving a misleading impression, however in the same way as parve ice cream has become the norm, most scholars are not concerned about this as clean meat will become common knowledge.
As of writing this article, these questions are still being explored by modern Jewish scholars, both in a factual way and how to apply halachah. As the process continues to unfold we have an exciting opportunity to see how halachah can move with the times and respond to new issues. We do not know yet if we will get to eat a kosher cheeseburger but we do know that our tradition will continue to thrive on new debates and analysis.
Ben read law at UCL before working at Herbert Smith until 2012. He spent four years in higher Jewish learning in Israel and has been involved in community and leadership projects, such as UCL JSoc President, Ner Yisrael Youth Director, Har Etzion British Alumni Programmes, Co-ordinator and informal educator for Immanuel College and Hasmonean. In his spare time Ben continues to practice law and is the General Counsel for a number of Jewish charities, as well as running a family investment fund. He lives in Israel with his wife Aviva, and their three children but regularly commutes to the UK.