Laboratory Meat: Is it Kosher?

Jewish ritual By Rabbi Chaim Weiner 04th Dec 2018

One of the exciting areas of development in recent years is bio-agricultural engineering. Several companies are working on manufactured meat that, rather than deriving from the flesh of animals, is grown in petri dishes from animal cells. What would the halacha say about this? Can meat that hasn’t been ritually slaughtered be kosher? Would it even be considered meat? Would you be able to eat it with milk? If the original cells came from a pig, would the subsequent meat be kosher?

Halacha has ways to deal with new developments. We search the Talmud to find underlying principles to guide us in dealing with new developments. While this area is very new, we can speculate on how the halacha may develop.

Amongst the birds that are forbidden to eat in the Torah is the bat haya’ana – literally ‘the daughter of the ostrich’. The Talmud explains: ‘Does the ostrich have a daughter? Rather, [this forbids] its eggs.’ [Hullin 64b] From here the rabbis learned that the eggs of a forbidden species are also forbidden or, more generally, anything that derives from a forbidden species is forbidden. Following this reasoning, meat grown from the cells of an animal would have the same status as the original animal. Meat grown from the cells of the pig would still be forbidden! But cells of cows would be kosher.

What about the requirement of kosher slaughter? This principle is more nuanced. Although something that comes from an animal retains its original status in some ways, it does not have exactly the same status. Chicken is meaty and cannot be eaten with milk. But eggs are not meaty; they are parve! Meat grown in a factory would be like meat in many ways, but not exactly the same. It would not require slaughter.

But would it be meat? We could argue that the produce of this biological engineering is not meat at all. I do not think that this will be the case. There is a halachic principle of lo plug – ‘do not differentiate’. The halacha avoids creating confusing divisions. When artificial meat is introduced into the market, there will be a long period of time when both meat from animals and laboratory meat will be sold. We can’t have a situation where some meat is meaty, but other, identical, meat is considered parve. For this reason, even artificial meat will be considered meaty.

There are still many challenges. In the technologies used today, the nutrients used to nourish the cell cultures are animal proteins, mainly blood, and the source of those nutrients is usually pigs. So the animal friendly new-fangled meat isn’t as animal friendly as we thought. Scientists are working on chemical and biological alternatives to these nutrients. While we do not usually care where animal feed comes from, the same cannot be said for cell cultures that are derived mainly from non-kosher nutrients.

It is still early days. The Rabbis have not had a chance to consider all the implications of these developments and the technology is still evolving. Still, it is not hard to imagine a time when our food will be substantially different. This is indeed a very exciting time.

The life of an observant Jew in the future will be different in many ways from what we are familiar with today. But that lifestyle will still have guidelines, prohibitions and commandments. Because that is the essential part of being an observant Jew.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe

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