Jewish groups are debating the kashrut status of lab-grown meat after researchers in the Netherlands unveiled the world’s first hamburger made from the material.
Last Monday, Prof. Mark Post of Maastricht University presented the “cultured beef burger” at a public tasting that, according to the university, “highlighted the urgent need to find a sustainable solution to food production.”
In order to produce cultured meat, muscle stem cells are extracted from animals, “usually cows, pigs or chickens” and around “20,000 such strands are needed to make one 140-gram [approximately 5- ounce] burger,” according to a university statement.
While the prospect of lab-grown meat has many excited – including animal rights groups such as PETA, which hailed the tasting as the “first step” toward humanely producing meat products – Orthodox rabbis are split over how they view the kashrut of such lab grown tissue.
Both the Orthodox Union and the Chabad-Lubavitch hassidic movement agree that the meat may be kosher in specific cases, but are sharply divided when it came to the particulars.
For kosher-observant Jews, the cultured burgers could open the door to radical dietary changes — namely, the birth of the kosher cheeseburger.
That’s because meat produced through this process could be considered parve – neither meat nor dairy — according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division. Thus, under traditional Jewish law, the burger could be paired with dairy products.
Several key conditions would have to be met to create kosher, parve cultured beef.
The tissue samples would have to come from an animal that had been slaughtered according to kosher rules, not from a biopsy from a live animal, Genack said.
The principle underlying this theory is much like the status of gelatin in Jewish law: Though it is derived from an animal, it is not meat (the OU certifies some bovine-derived gelatin as parve).
Genack noted another source for viewing cultured meat as parve: a 19th-century Vilna-born scholar known as the Heshek Shlomo wrote that the meat of an animal conjured up in a magical incantation could be considered parve. It may not be too much of a stretch, then, to apply the same logic to modern genetic wizardry.
The Chabad movement, however, believes that any such cultured meat would be considered as meat and would lack any such parve status.
Writing on Chabad.org, Yehuda Shurpin also discussed magical meat, citing a Talmudic discussion of meat conjured by magic or delivered from heaven, but said that neither could serve as a precedent for lab-grown meat.
If the cells extracted from the animal in order to grow the meat “are considered substantial enough to be called meat, this may present a problem,” Shurpin stated.
Such meat, he theorized, could violate the biblical prohibition of eating meat severed from a living animal.
“For Jews, if the cells are considered real meat, then presumably they would need to be extracted from a kosher animal that was slaughtered according to Jewish law,” he wrote.
However, “these are just preliminary thoughts on the subject,” he was careful to note.