Meat the Future

But Will Lab-Grown Meat Be Kosher?

Jews, at least some Jews, have been asking if artificial flesh is kosher for a very long time. You can even find debates on the subject in the Talmud, depending on how you define “flesh” and “artificial.” In the Tractate Sanhedrin (65b), two Rabbis, Chanina and Oshaia, spend every Sabbath evening studying the Kabbalistic Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah). They use its teachings to create a calf, which they then eat, evidently without slaughtering it according to kosher law, or kashrut. Interpreters of the Tractate debated whether kashrut had been violated, a questionable point given the special genesis of the animal in question.

According to Rabbi Yeshayah Halevi Horowitz, active during the late 16th through the early 17th century, the calf described in the Tractate was not a “real animal,” and thus shechitah (the practice of kosher slaughter) was unnecessary. It was a human creation, not part of divinely created nature. But other authorities, though they agreed that the calf was no natural animal, opined that the failure to perform shechitah violated a different principle, called marit ayin, or acting in ways that appear improper even if they are not improper. In another Talmudic narrative (Tractate Sanhedrin 59b), a traveling Rabbi who is threatened by lions on the road, prays to the heavens and receives an immediate response. Two hunks of flesh fall from the sky, intended to distract his assailants. Obligingly, the lions seize one hunk, leaving the Rabbi free to carry the other to a study hall, where it feeds a different kind of hunger, namely that for debate. The final judgment is that “no unfit thing descends from heaven.” The meat is good for the Jews.

Jews have been asking if artificial flesh is kosher for a very long time

Kosher law is ancient. The Talmud, fully compiled in its Babylonian form by around the 5th century CE, considerably post-dates the origins of kosher law, or kashrut, in the Hebrew Bible, specifically in the books of Leviticus and in Deuteronomy. But kosher law is also modern. For hundreds of years, the practice of implementing kashrut has changed along with the transformations of the Jewish people, following the shifts in the ways Jews eat and the foods they can access.

Over the past hundred-plus years, like all other eaters in the developed world, Jews’ dietary patterns have been transformed by the industrialization of food. Everything from gelatin to white bread to meat, not to mention non-food household products such as hand lotion and shampoo, can be bought from a supermarket bearing a kosher label, all produced on a massive scale in factories. In the contemporary United States, Kosher foods are a business worth about $10 billion per year (one 2012 estimate had the global industry at $17 billion). But not all of this business is done on the Jewish dollar.

Only a relatively small percentage of kosher foods sold are bought by observant Jews for whom that label means compliance with Jewish law. This is partly because a large number of everyday foods, such as orange juice, are already produced under kosher supervision. So when a person looks at a new kind of food and asks “But is it kosher?” the question has implications that are simultaneously Jewish and much larger than the Jewish world.

One such potential new food, “cultured meat,” could be produced from a sample of muscle cells taken from a “donor” animal, which may remain alive; those cells are then encouraged to proliferate in a bioreactor, fed by a nutritive growth medium, often containing fetal bovine serum (FBS)[1]. In early Summer 2016, a representative from the non-profit organization New Harvest, which promotes the creation of meat and other animal-derived foods by cell culture and other sophisticated biotechnological methods, spoke in Oakland, California. When I asked if cultured meat would be kosher, she happily reported that the issue of kashrut had recently been discussed in an Internet forum, and that, yes, a Rabbi had suggested that laboratory-grown meat would be kosher.[2] There would be no reason for Jews not to participate in the future of protein.

There would be no reason for Jews not to participate in the future of protein

As T.S. Eliot put it in “The Hollow Men,” “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.” The real kosher status of laboratory-grown meat, often called “cultured meat,” is much more ambiguous.

The question “is X kosher?” has become standard for many English speakers, familiar both with Jews and their dietary laws (at least the basics that come up most often: no pork, no shrimp, no mixing meat and milk). “Kosher” also carries an aura beyond Jewish orthopraxis, a sense of “rightness” (the deep root word here is the Hebrew kasher means “fitting” or “proper”), and perhaps this has a value for those discussing where cultured meat fits into the future of food. To ask if cultured meat would be kosher might sound natural enough. But something so strange, so completely unprecedented as laboratory-grown meat, needs all the help it can get to win a smile from eaters accustomed to eating animals.

As of 2016, cultured meat does not yet exist as a food product, but many expect it to grace our tables and refrigerators soon. Scientists are crafting small pieces of muscle tissue, produced via tissue culture and tissue engineering techniques, in corporate and academic laboratories. Others are investing money in the technology, as venture capitalists, or investing time and reputational capital in it, as entrepreneurs. But the technology still lags behind the abundant hype, making speculation into cultured meat’s kosher status curious. Why has this question kicked up so early in the prehistory of the meat of the future? Why must the future be shot through with antiquity? It is tempting to joke that this is because there will be Jews in the future, and some of them might keep kosher – but Jewish interest is only part of the story. The Hebrew National hotdog brand (notably, not accepted by Orthodox Jews) uses the slogan “We answer to a higher authority,” in their advertisements. As Jewish as a “Hebrew higher authority” might sound, this motto also resonates with consumers who defer to non-Jewish higher authorities, or to none at all.

Something so completely unprecedented as laboratory-grown meat needs all the help it can get to win a smile from eaters accustomed to eating animals

New Harvest is in the business of promoting what it calls “cellular agriculture.” Broadly speaking, this is the use of novel cell culture techniques to produce ingredients, from meat to eggs, that, historically, we have gleaned from animals. New Harvest thus has an understandable interest in presenting positive stories about the technologies whose development it advocates, such as cultured meat’s potential for kosher certification. Another organization that promotes meat produced via tissue culture, the Good Food Institute (GFI), has championed the term “Clean Meat,” remarkable for its ability to make Leviticus echo strongly into the 21st Century.

The term “clean” always summons its opposite. The anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose gloss on Leviticus is enormously influential, writes “Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas.”[3] Viewed through her lens, kashrut becomes just such a “systematic ordering of ideas,” less a matter of filth and cleanliness and more a way of structuring human experience and behavior. Not that meat can’t be filthy in several senses, but filth is in the eye and hand of the beholder. Douglas’s Purity and Danger was in my backpack when I found myself at a “pig-picking” in rural Kentucky, literally pulling cooked meat off a hog’s flank with my hands as steam rose from the apples that had been roasting along in its gut. The meat was clean to me, and, if memory serves, delicious.

Industrial meat production, with its Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and slaughterhouses, is ruinous from both environmental and ethical standpoints. Cultured meat’s premise, its sine qua non, is that the new meat will be more pure than the industrially-produced meat of today. The byproducts of our current meat include pollutants that contribute to greenhouse gases, and leak into ground water and waterways. CAFOs also create the ideal conditions for the development of diseases that threaten not only livestock, but human lives, and to raise animals this way means treating them like machines, little bioreactors for making meat.[4] Chickens’ beaks get cut off, cows and pigs stand in their own excrement, and everyone gets pumped full of antibiotics. Most present-day meat, viewed from this vantage, is unclean, and from such visions springs the demand that the human imagination journey in time to find something better. Some in the food world dream of an agrarian past in which animals were better treated and farming was done at a scale more congruent with environmental health. Others dream of industrial-scale meat production with the wickedness removed, naturally via biotechnology rather than the Sefer Yetzirah.

Cultured meat is a technology that would gratify human appetites while cleansing the blood from our teeth

Most promoters of cultured meat are well aware that a widespread, global reduction of meat consumption would be preferable; they just doubt that it is likely, given projections for population growth and increased carnivory in states such as India and China. In other words, cultured meat is a technology that would gratify human appetites while cleansing the blood from our teeth. This could be seen as a great boon, or, more cynically, as a kind of moral prosthesis for a civilization that cannot grow up on its own. Even more critical, is the suggestion that cultured meat examines the future of food security from the standpoint of production (and thus, from the standpoint of enterprise), rather than distribution (and thus, from the standpoint of politics). While some of cultured meat’s advocates are sensitive to the intrinsically political issues of food justice and regulation, the movement has centered around the business-friendly idea that our food system’s troubles can be fixed by a transformed means of production alone.

Given that so much hangs in the balance, it makes all the sense in the world that a representative from New Harvest was eager to answer the question of kashrut in the affirmative, and that she felt she had grounds to do so. The Rabbi cited in New Harvest’s Internet discussion, had opined that, since no animal need be killed to produce cultured meat, it would not, from the perspective of kashrut, count as meat at all. It might be considered pareve, the category for foods that are neither fleischig (meat), or milchig (dairy). The first Reddit commenter’s response – notably offered without a trace of anti-Semitism – was what we might call an heretical but high-spirited form of “bacon glee,” beginning with the suggestion that, if meat grown from cow cells need not count as meat at all, why not grow pig cells? Why not grow the delicious fatty ones that crisp in the pan? The transgression continued, spinning into full-on Jewish Humor mode: “Kosher bacon, the dream is real.” “We might make that our next fundraising campaign.” “If you make kosher bacon you need to film a Rabbi eating it.” It was tough not to think of the 1972 Everything You Ever Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), in which Woody Allen offered viewers a skit called “What’s My Perversion?” Here, a Rabbi is bound to a chair with rope, then whipped lightly by a blonde model while his wife sits at his feet, eating pork. A few years earlier, someone had created a web site in order to tell a different kind of transgressive joke. They claimed to have a company that could create cultured meat out of the muscle cells of celebrities; naturally, cultured meat presents us with the technical possibility of eating our bodies, ourselves, Jew or Gentile. Some have surmised that the sheer strangeness of cultured meat, has made it a catalyst for all manner of heretical and satirical thinking. It certainly crosses over a line that has long been firm in the modern imagination, namely that between organisms (edible) and artifacts (inedible) – never mind that industrial food production has meant that we transgress that line daily, in almost every meal.

If meat grown from cow cells need not count as meat at all, why not grow pig cells?

New Harvest was not the first to broach the question of the kosher status of meat produced via tissue cultured techniques. Such questions began to pile up on the Internet around August 2013, when Mark Post, Professor of Physiology at Maastricht University, unveiled his famous hamburger made from cultured cells. The burger was cooked and eaten at a London media event, marking what remains the highest point of media hype around cultured meat, several years later. Early conversations about whether or not cultured meat might be kosher, have turned around the issue of which animals are permitted or forbidden to Jews, as is laid out in Leviticus 11. In other words, the first questions asked, presumed that the source animal for a cell culture would be one of the major determinants of kashrut.

But, as the Talmudic story of Rabbis Chanina and Oshaia shows, what makes meat kosher, is more complicated than animal type. First, sick or injured animals of any species are un-kosher. Second, even fit animals of the proper species are not considered kosher unless slaughtered correctly according to the rules of shechitah. Animals are not stunned before slaughter (as is the non-kosher convention) but are awake and alert as a long ritual knife, called the chalif, is pulled across the throat, meant to instantly kill the animal and begin draining it of blood; some even argue that this method of slaughter deprives the brain of oxygen swiftly and, thus, minimizes suffering. After the body has been drained, the carcass is carefully inspected for deformities, growths, ruptured veins and blood vessels, stagnant blood and so forth – this in conformity with the biblical injunction against eating blood or eating a diseased animal. The blood ban has, historically, meant that many kosher-keeping Jews (in the U.S., nearly all kosher-keeping Jews) eat meat only from the forequarters of an animal, rather than from the hindquarters, the veins and arteries of which are very tough to remove, and the sciatic nerve also being considered un-kosher. The process is, of course, labor-intensive, and as a result kosher meat usually costs significantly more than non-kosher; this also means that Jewish history is dotted with criminals seeking to sell non-kosher meat as kosher. Notably, and significantly for the production of cultured meat, according to the principle of aver min hachai one cannot remove part of an animal to eat while the animal still lives. The upshot of this is that much depends on whether or not a Rabbi judges that a biopsy of tissue, taken from a donor animal, counts as a “part” of that animal, or not – and would a hamburger grown from that sample, then count as part of that animal? This is a Jewish version of a philosophical question that has emerged about cultured meat, namely the relationship between the tissue culture made from an animal, and that individual animal itself. To what degree does a hamburger grown from cow cells, share traits with that cow? What is the ontological status of cultured meat? Its relationship with the donor species? And if cultured meat were judged to be pareve rather than fleishig, what would that judgment, in turn, mean for the broader and extra-Jewish question of the meatiness of cultured meat? What would such a Jewish opinion weigh, in a broader conversation about whether tissue-cultured cells can count as meat in all the conventional senses? It is easy to imagine that if a kosher authority judged cultured meat to be kosher, but because it was not actually meat, New Harvest would have to think twice before agreeing.

To what degree does a hamburger grown from cow cells, share traits with that cow?

In 2016, a newer entrant into the race to create cultured meat, the Israeli startup SuperMeat, made much of the issue of kashrut. As Sarah Zhang pointed out in The Atlantic, company co-founder Koby Barak was transparent about the controversial status of kosher claims, particular ones based on still-nascent technologies.[5] Zhang (citing historian Roger Horowitz’s book Kosher USA) rightly points out that kosher claims on behalf of all industrial products must be based on determinations about individual ingredients.[6] In the case of cultured meat, one would have to get in the weeds and trace the growth medium, the scaffolding, and the original cells, to their points of origin. But even this might not matter, depending on how one interprets the principle of panim chadashot (“a new face;” ponim chadashos if one favors the Ashkenazi Yiddish pronunciation), one which is invoked by the rabbis consulted by SuperMeat. This is a principle that has been invoked again and again as Rabbis have sought to determine how Jews should relate to industrial foods. If a substance’s physical form is radically transformed, then an originally unkosher element may lose that status and be considered kosher. In one case, kosher status was granted to gelatin derived from the collagen in pig skins (an easier source to use than cow bones) – for the ultimate gelatin seemed to be of a completely different substance than the animal product from which it was derived. But panim chadashot’s application is not undisputed; the pig gelatin case led to scandal, and producers of kosher gelatin had to get their collagen elsewhere. And this case may have important implications for cultured meat, since collagen is a useful ingredient for making the organic scaffolding on which tissue cultures are often grown.

The story of kashrut’s encounter with industrial food production is a complex one, too much so for easy recounting here; Horowitz’s aforementioned Kosher USA tells it in great detail. The story is filled with efforts to adapt kosher law to methods of making food, and to a scale of making food, that are unimaginable from a biblical standpoint. It is also filled with a question central to the modern Jewish experience: how can observant Jews participate in the non-Jewish world without transgressing the limits of the law? That question would take on a distinctive form in American life: could assimilation take place on Judaism’s own terms?[7] More prosaically, could one drink Coca-Cola in its original recipe, which included a small amount of glycerin that was not necessarily kosher, or was a kosher form of glycerin necessary? Of course, Jews have many centuries of experience adapting halacha, the legal system of Rabbinic Judaism, to the customs and resources of the nations in which they live. In some cases, premodern precedents retain their relevance. The case of davar hamamid is instructive: while ordinarily, according to the principle of bitul (or, nullification) the presence of a non-kosher element in a kosher food or liquid can be negated if the ratio between the two is 1-60 or greater; however, in certain cases the small non-kosher element may play a catalytic or shaping role in determining the overall structure of a thing, a classic example being the use of animal rennet (typically taken from the lining of a calf’s stomach) to turn milk into cheese. In a modern context, a great many industrial foods make use of such catalysts, whose kosher or non-kosher nature needs to be ascertained.

We do not yet know what kind of ethical labeling cultured meat would receive, if it receives any at all

The story of kashrut in the 20th century is also a tale of shifting regulatory regimes and shifting markets, and of what Benjamin Gutman, arguing in the Yale Law Journal, terms “interpretive pluralism.” This interpretive pluralism finds a secular, non-Jewish echo in the contemporary pursuit of “eco-labeling” and other ethically tinged labels.[8] Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews all tend to interpret kashrut differently, and different kosher authorities belonging to these denominations, effectively produce different brands of kosher certification. Consumers make their determinations about which kosher labels, or heckshers, they will trust, which often but not always tracks according to denomination within Judaism. Beyond this, there are federal laws that regulate the kinds of representations koshering agencies, as well as product manufacturers, may make, in addition to governing the private litigation to which businesses may have to resort. The result is a hybrid public-private regulatory environment for kosher products.

Gutman argues that this public-private hybrid is a promising model for the regulation of organic and other “eco-labeled” foods, which came under scrutiny in the United States during the 1990s because of what Gutman calls “understandable concerns about deception, fraud and confusion.”[9] Those concerns prompted government involvement, as well as calls for federal standards for the sake of consumers as well as manufacturers. Problematically for anyone interested in federal standards, “organic” is used in many ways, and different consumer groups demand different attributes from their “organic” foods – much as kosher consumers make different demands on kosher food producers and certifiers. This means that the market serves an important role in determining the types of regulation that apply to both kosher and organic foods, but not without the government also playing a role. Gutman’s argument has implications for the case of cultured meat, whose regulatory future (because it is nonexistent as a market product, as of this writing) is far more uncertain than that of organic foods. We do not yet know what kind of ethical labeling cultured meat would receive—be it couched in environmental or animal-protection terms—if it receives any at all. Nor do we know who would handle the accompanying regulation. What would be the mechanism for establishing relations of trust? Many in the cultured meat movement place their trust in the market: new food products will change the way we consume, and thus allow us to “pacify” the food system and reduce the harm it inflicts on the earth, on animals, and on our spirits. The question might be, how unregulated an environment do they want, for their new ethical products?

Perhaps it is not so strange to ask if cultured meat would be kosher, after all. The question takes the difficult question of whether this substance would be “clean” or “unclean” and fits it into a familiar framework, one in which an effectively secularized religious category might underwrite something strange and new, guaranteeing its ethical weight. The question of kashrut thus only appears to be a Jewish question. The stakes are larger than the Jewish world, and the symbolic “halo” around kosher status may in fact be a way of communicating about quality and ethics beyond the observant Jewish frame. In a 2013 promotional film describing cultured meat, Mark Post imagined that, in the future, meat products in the supermarket might bear marks (like today’s “ecolabels”) indicating that they were environmentally friendly or, perhaps, that no animals had died to produce them. Although Post made no reference to kashrut, the similarity between such marks and the traditional hecksher born by kosher products, is unmistakable, and it recalls as well the effort to label foods by geographic origin; the anthropologist Heather Paxson has noted that such labeling, pushes back on the sense of anonymity and place-lessness that have grown along with industrial food production.[10] The kosher status of cultured meat is still unclear, and it is likely that, should such products reach our supermarket shelves bearing markers of ethical promise, they would also be marked by the same “interpretive pluralism” attached to kosher meat. The story of cultured meat may turn out to contain not only those stories of saving animals or saving the planet that entrepreneurs favor, but also a near-Rabbinic level of disputation about tissue cultures, meat processing, and even the desirable physical form of artificial meat. We may need to reread Mary Douglas.

Article by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, originally published on The Revealer on November 7, 2016.

Image: Bistro In Vitro Meat Synthesizer

[1] The search is on for a vegan replacement

[2] She was referring to a discussion thread that New Harvest had held at the web site Reddit.com, in March 2016: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/48sn01/we_are_new_harvest_the_nonprofit_responsible_for/

[3] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1966) 51.

[4] See Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

[5] Sarah Zhang, “A Startup Wants to Grow Kosher Meat in a Lab,” The Atlantic, September 16, 2016.

[6] Roger Horowitz, Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[7] See Horowitz 125.

[8] Benjamin N. Gutman, “Ethical Eating: Applying the Kosher Food Regulatory Regime to Organic Food,” Yale Law Journal, Vol. 108, No. 8 (June, 1999), pp. 2351-2384.

[9] See Gutman, 2352.

[10] Heather Paxson: The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

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