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By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator
Q. We are vegetarian and are hoping that one day there will be kosher lab-grown meat. Is that ever going to happen?
A. The concept of “lab-grown meat” is to create food that has all the properties of meat but does so without animals. One example of this is the Impossible Burger, which is made completely from vegetable sources and, although it requires hashgachah, it does not pose any unique kashrus issues. But the term “lab-grown” is usually reserved for a process whereby special cells, called stem cells, from an animal or bird are propagated using meat-free ingredients to become a steak or other piece of meat. In other words, the “real” stem cell from an animal converts nutrients into meat, much like the cells that are in the animal’s body would do using nutrients that the animal eats. Thus, lab-grown meat must begin with natural stem cells that come from an animal or bird, and that raises significant kashrus issues, for the following reasons.
The simplest way to obtain stem cells is by taking them from an animal when it is still alive, and, invariably, such cells are inherently forbidden as basar min hachai (meat from a living animal) even if the animal is a kosher species. [Aren’t the cells microscopic and, therefore, “non-existent” from a halachic perspective? Firstly, the starting material is typically not microscopic, and the scientists will just use a chunk of meat as their source of stem cells. Secondly, see Minchas Shlomo 2:100:7 that in such cases the general permissibility for items which are “not visible”, does not apply.]
It is possible to recover stem cells just after an animal dies or is slaughtered, but for that cell to be kosher, the animal would have to be from a kosher species, undergo shechitah, be checked for teraifos, and potentially have melichah. This adds considerable logistical challenges and makes it almost impossible from a technical standpoint. Something else to consider is that most contemporary Poskim have taken the position that food produced from stem cells obtained in this manner would be considered fleishig. Jewish consumers might find that acceptable, but for most people in this industry that might be considered a fatal flaw, since it is important to them that these items be labeled as “meat-free”.
Rabbis have been working with researchers to find ways to obtain stem cells that avoid the preceding issues, and there are some promising ideas that have been presented. There are obvious scientific limitations to this, plus Poskim are also cautious in approving novel ideas and tend to look for consensus with other Rabbis before permitting something that was never done before. It is noteworthy that many have taken the position that even if there was a method of obtaining stem cells which are kosher and pareve, the finished product must still be labeled meat/fleishig. Varying reasons are given for this. Some see this as “true meat” since it shares all the DNA, features, and properties of meat, and others say that such products are included in the issur d’rabannan to eat poultry with milk which (they understand) includes anything that has so much in common with meat or poultry.
This industry is in its infancy, and the coming years will show which ways scientists and Poskim find to bring such products to market in a way that allows them to be enjoyed by kosher consumers.
This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, December 1, 2023.