Mysticism in the laboratory—the making of high-tech kosher and halal meat

Silicon Valley wrestles with religion.
Silicon Valley wrestles with religion.
Image: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
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Food is imbued with culture. So as the cell-cultured meat industry evolves, it will have to somehow meld to and meet our expectations of how we use meat. Grown without bones, how will this new form of food conform to the needs of people who love barbecue or whole branzino? Will the cuts one day be the same as current-day porterhouse steaks and chicken breasts?

Perhaps no cultural question is more intriguing than whether cell-cultured beef, chicken, and pork will be considered kosher or halal. Religious guidelines are very specific about ensuring an animal is properly killed for consumption, so meat that circumvents the slaughtering process altogether turns those rules upside-down.

For the religious authorities who make such calls, the answers aren’t so easy to come by. The thought experiment of lab-grown meat—no longer so experimental—has sparked debate around texts several hundred years old. Whatever position rabbis and imams wind up staking, there’s a lot of money at play. The global kosher market is estimated to be worth more than $24 billion, a figure that is dwarfed by the halal market, valued at $1.6 trillion.

For both religious traditions, the fitness of cell-cultured meat is a question of process. Both are intrigued by the messages coming from Silicon Valley.

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The heart of the issue

The Torah states that, if someone wants to eat animal meat, he or she must slaughter that animal in a way that renders it ‘fit and proper’ for people to consume.

Describing the procedure is necessarily graphic. A person called a shochet must take a long knife and sever the animal’s wind pipe and food pipe. By following this religiously-mandated procedure, the hope is that an animal’s suffering will be minimized. It causes a rapid drop in blood pressure in the brain, causing the animal to quickly lose consciousness.

Under Islamic tradition, a sharp knife is used to make a deep incision at the front of the animal’s throat, so the blood drains. An Islamic prayer, called the “bismillah,” must be said over the animal by the slaughterer as well.

So what happens if there’s virtually no animal at all? Scientists who make cell-cultured meat must collect cells from a live animal to start cell lines that can theoretically provide tons and tons of meat. But beyond that, actual live animals aren’t part of the equation.

A minority within the rabbinical community argues that this breaks the kosher conversation wide open. An orthodox rabbi in Israel named Yuval Cherlow, of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, went so far as to tell the news outlet YNet (in Hebrew) that even cell-cultured pork would be permissible for Jewish palates. According to Jewish kosher laws, Jews are forbidden to eat pork, shellfish, or foods that mix meat and dairy.

His reasoning? Cherlow said that when a pig cell is extracted for growing into fat and muscle tissue, the process it goes though changes the nature of the cell. He argues that it “loses its original identity and therefore cannot be defined as forbidden for consumption.” Further, Cherlow makes the case that cell-cultured meat isn’t meat at all, that the process transforms it altogether into a parve food, something that’s neutral.

Cherlow’s case, while compelling, isn’t widely held. The rabbinical community is enthralled—even excited—by the prospect of cell-cultured meat. The Jewish faith embraces an idea that charges people to ‘repair the world,’ and cell-cultured meat is seen as a viable way to combat climate change. Still, most rabbis stop short of embracing the idea that pork will ever be made kosher under the cell-culturing method.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, as CEO of the kosher division at the Orthodox Union, is at the head of one of a handful of powerful Jewish groups that certify foods as kosher. “Stem cells from a pig, that would not be kosher,” he told Quartz. But for beef and chicken products, he expresses optimism. Jews who hold to kosher rules don’t mix dairy with meat, which has long prevented them from eating cheeseburgers. Genack has said that may soon change.

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The loophole

About a decade ago, the Orthodox Union considered whether an amino acid called L-cysteine would be considered kosher. L-cysteine, which is derived from duck feathers, is used as a dough conditioner and strengthener in breads. It also has the benefit of extending shelf life. But just how those feathers were procured became a question for religious scholars.

To easily get those feathers, birds must first be soaked in hot water. Industry standards set the temperature at 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius). So for those keeping kosher, it became important to know whether the animal was first properly killed or prepared. As described by the Orthodox Union, in this particular case, the rules concern birds that have been killed, but have not yet been salted and still contain blood.

To work around the issue, Genack reasoned that L-cystein is kosher because of the way it’s created. Once the amino acid is collected from the feathers, it’s run through a purification process that turns it into crystals—according to Genack’s logic, changing its essence and making its use in foods permissible. Somewhere between its feather and ingredient-ready states, it changes at some metaphysical level.

But the Orthodox Union is not as quick as Cherlow to find that cell-cultured pork would be kosher. The rabbinical community is still debating—and probably will be for a long time—the line between what makes cell-cultured meat real meat or something that’s considered neutral.

Separately, scholars are still debating whether something like cultured chicken would only be kosher if the cells came from a bird that had been properly killed. That won’t please animal rights enthusiasts, who are drawn to cell-cultured meat because it circumvents the need to kill an animal. The case could be made by cell-cultured meat companies, though, that extracting cells from one slaughtered animal could lead to the successful development of cell lines that could theoretically produce an unlimited supply of meat.

It’s the intersection of mysticism, tradition, biochemistry, and modernity—and it’s one of the first big cultural debates to happen when considering the nature of the food we eat and whether its essence can change through process.