Kosher pork? Not so fast

There is certainly merit in examining this new technology from a broad, holistic perspective. Yet the leap from there to “kosher pork” seems tenuous and unnecessary.

Bacon cheeseburger (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Bacon cheeseburger
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
For the past few weeks the Internet has been abuzz with news of the impossible becoming reality. According to an interview originally published by Ynet, and subsequently reappearing in The Jerusalem Post and various other media outlets, a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbi has given his approval (in principle) to the idea of kosher pork.
Just to clarify, before it begins to sound truly outrageous, the meat in question is not ordinary pork (about which the consensus stands that it remains as forbidden as it always has been) but rather “cultured” or “clean” meat – meat produced in a lab through the process of cell culture and tissue engineering, beginning with starter cells from a real animal.
The thought of a pig producing kosher meat truly tantalizes the imagination (and perhaps the taste buds) but I would suggest that the more prudent question to be asked is not “is it kosher?” but rather “does it need to be kosher?” Several scholars have already indicated that the answer to both of those questions is in the negative.
Clean meat is being touted by its developers and opponents alike as a technology which has the potential to become a truly disruptive force in the global food market. In just a few years we may never think about meat the same way again. Ever since Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the world’s first lab-grown hamburger in 2013, the clean meat industry worldwide has grown exponentially. Startups and biotech companies on three continents have entered the picture and millions of dollars have been invested in the field from as high-profile names as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, along with conglomerates such as Tyson foods and Cargill, two of the world’s largest meat producers, to name but a few.
Some estimates predict that clean meat may hit the shelves as early as the end of the current calendar year. And while other predictions are more conservative, the growing trend is to view the entry of clean meat into the market as a matter of time.
What is driving this revolution in the meat industry? The idealistic answer is concern for the future and the welfare of the planet. Many place the focus on the inability of the current meat industry to feed the world’s exponentially growing population. Animal rights groups place the focus on the reduction of animal slaughter and other ills (as they see them) brought about by factory farming. Others point to the impact on the environment – the breeding of livestock requires tremendous amounts of natural resources and is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. It is expected that moving to clean meat will significantly reduce this carbon footprint. The common denominator is that all those pushing the agenda of clean meat are trying to save the world.
That goal would seem to be in perfect alignment with Jewish religious principles. Judaism has always viewed the conservation and perfection of man’s surroundings as a religious dictum. And thus Rabbi Yuval Cherlow stated in the aforementioned interview that the proper religious response should be to permit lab-produced meat, even when it comes from the animal which has forever symbolized the antithetical dish to the Jewish diet. In Rabbi Cherlow’s words “halachic thought should examine the needs of all humanity, not only one’s own case.”
There is certainly merit in examining this new technology from a broad, holistic perspective. Yet the leap from there to “kosher pork” seems tenuous and unnecessary.
Should Halacha (Jewish religious law) embrace the new technology? I am a firm believer that it should. But just as the religious approach should take the broader picture into account, it should not lose sight of the finer details. There remains great reason to assume that lab-grown meat would retain the status of the animal from which it was produced. Published research to date speaks of starter cells, microscopic as they may be, which trace their origins to a live animal. And the finished product is biologically indistinguishable under a microscope from the traditional meat we have come to know and love. Taken together these two facts mean that meat grown from a non-kosher animal would remain non-kosher meat. Such is the view of at least one eminent authority, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel (as expressed at length in the Halachic journal Techumin).
This is not to say clean meat will be out of bounds for the kosher consumer. There is no reason why it cannot be produced in a way that will conform to all the requirements of Jewish religious law – as will be determined by a consensus of the authorities of our day. (Another possibility is the production of meat from inedible cells such as hair, although at present this remains speculative.)
And the facts speak for themselves – companies around the world that are working on clean meat (including three in Israel) are producing labgrown beef, chicken and duck. Many companies have chosen to focus specifically on beef since cattle farming is the least efficient and most damaging to the environment. Taking the bigger picture into account does not equate to relegating religious dietary laws to the pages of history.
It may not be long before the clean meat revolution enters our lives in full force, and while it may be tempting to entertain the possibility of kosher pork, it may also be redundant. Observant Jews will not be left behind. Those who wish to be a part of the new movement trying to save the world without compromising their time-honored beliefs and practices will have ample opportunity to do so.
The author holds an MA in science and Halacha from Bar-Ilan University, where he conducted research into the halachic implications of clean meat.