Will Lab-Grown Meat Find Its Way to Your Table?

By: Rina Krautwirth  |  May 10, 2018

In August of 2013, a turning point for the food industry occurred when scientists for the first time demonstrated that they could grow a hamburger in the lab from just a few cells of an animal. Since then, much research has gone into developing this innovation, and a number of companies have sprung up that aim to bring this product to the public. Two such companies include Memphis Meats in San Francisco and Mosa Meat in the Netherlands, which have both raised capital toward bringing affordable lab-grown meat to the general market. Mosa Meat, which describes itself as a “spin out” from the original lab that demonstrated that first hamburger, promotes its product as biologically the same as regular beef. Three Israeli startups–Super Meat, Future Meat Technologies, and Meat the Future–have joined in as well. Super Meat works on lab-grown chicken and Future Meat Technologies even has plans for technology that could enable consumers to grow their own meat.   

The idea of lab-grown meat, also called “clean meat,” means good news for animal rights advocates, as this innovation could reduce or even eliminate the need to slaughter animals for food. Moreover, in terms of environmental considerations, this new method possibly could reduce the carbon footprint generated by using farm animals for food. Another significant benefit of in vitro meat is that it potentially could alleviate food shortages by providing a more efficient alternative to the current meat production process.

In spite of all the potential benefits, research has shown varying attitudes toward lab-grown meat within different demographics. Overall, 65.3% of those surveyed by scientists for an article published in the scientific journal Plos One definitely or probably would try lab-grown meat. However, in terms of long-term engagement as opposed to just a try, the results of the research vary. Some respondents expressed concern over price–if lab-grown meat were to cost more than farmed meat–as well as over the taste and general appeal. Some also expressed concern over the effect that this new process would have on the farming industry. Economic status, meat eater or not, and even political affiliation all factored into respondents’ reactions to the idea of lab-grown meat with vegetarian or vegan, lower income, and politically liberal respondents sounding more receptive to the idea. Interestingly, presenting the subjects of three different studies with positive information about “clean meat” led those subjects to develop more positive attitudes toward the idea.

For the Jewish population, additional questions arise as to the halakhic ramifications of meat grown in a lab. Firstly, could such meat be considered kosher even if the cells derived from a non-kosher animal? Secondly, would you be able to eat this meat together with dairy?  Rabbis have weighed in on these questions with differing answers.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division, explained that using “clean meat” would have a number of advantages, both in general, and to the kosher consumer in particular. He explains that since lab-grown meat involves taking stem cells or DNA from animals, growing cells in the lab, and then producing the product industrially, its use would eliminate the need for animals. This innovation also would have a positive impact on the environment, given that the amount of greenhouse gas generated by cattle in the United States exceeds the amount generated by cars. Additionally, for the kosher consumer, using lab-grown meat would mean a reduction in the cost of meat. Typically, approximately only 18-20 percent of the slaughtered cow gets used for kosher meat (the rest gets sent to the non-kosher market); due to the prohibition of eating the gid hanasheh (sciatic nerve), the hindquarters do not get used and because of the need for glatt, only approximately half of the forequarters gets used. The ability to use the entire product of clean meat would increase efficiency and reduce cost for the kosher consumer.

The question though remains: Is lab-grown meat considered kosher? According to Rabbi Genack, based on the principle of hayotzei min ha assur assur (that which derives from something forbidden also is forbidden), the cells used for the process of lab-grown meat would need to derive from a ritually slaughtered (shekhted) kosher animal. In such a case, we then could consider lab-grown meat kosher. This same principle, that something that derives from something not kosher also is not kosher, means that milk from a non-kosher mammal or eggs from a non-kosher bird also are not kosher. Similarly, cells from an animal would fall into the same category.

Would such meat be considered meat or pareve? Some opinions say yes and some say no. Rabbi Asher Weiss, a consultant for the OU from Israel, maintains that the product should be considered meat, whereas Rabbi Hershel Schechter of YU considers it pareve. As a reason to consider the product as meat, it looks like meat and genetically is meat. As logic to consider it pareve, the meat is not exactly from the animal. Rabbi Genack maintains that the OU most likely would follow the stricter opinion and would consider this product as meat. All and all, Rabbi Genack views this as very exciting technology with many opportunities for positive change.    

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Director of Tzohar’s Jewish Ethics Center in Israel, agrees with the benefits of utilizing lab-grown meat, as he points to a religious and ethical benefit in terms of the current process of manufacturing meat, the amount of resources (water and land) currently needed to produce meat, and the amount of pollution generated from the meat production process as of now. Rabbi Cherlow differs, however, on the halakhic nature of this product. He maintains that since the end product has been so greatly changed from its original form, it no longer has a connection to its original source, and thus you could eat lab-grown meat together with milk! Rabbi Cherlow explains that this topic has a similarity (not equality) to the kashrut issues involved with gelatin. He points to those who rule that we can eat gelatin made from a non-kosher animal because the final product has gone through so much processing that it no longer has a connection to the original animal. Moreover, according to this logic, Rabbi Cherlow would also consider lab-grown meat that derives from a non-kosher animal permissible to eat.

Regarding the differentiation between lab-engineered cells and clones, Rabbi Cherlow maintains that since the case of clones involves a live animal, we still would consider the product to be meat. In contrast, lab-engineered cells involve “a piece of something that never was alive and was not connected to something alive.” Rabbi Cherlow points out that a halakhic decision has not yet been rendered on the issue of lab-grown meat and that he thinks that as the product becomes an actuality, there will be a large halakhic dispute about both cloned and engineered cells.

Another kashrut issue that arises with regard to lab-grown meat is the possibly that the serum used to culture the cells might derive from animal blood. According to Rabbi Genack, the blood would get removed, and thus would not cause an issue. Rabbi Cherlow likewise does not see a problem with this, and, moreover, does not think that the serum would render the product meat. He explains that some would forbid the product based on this issue, but views them as not part of the mainstream. Some too would maintain that the serum causes the product to become meat, but Rabbi Cherlow thinks that “it is not necessary to arrive at this conclusion.” Independent of kashrut, not necessarily would animal-based serum be used anyway.

All this for now remains hypothetical, as lab-grown meat has yet to hit the market in any practical way. On the other hand, projections for when the product could become commercially available include the year 2021, just three years down the line. One company, Hampton Creek (now called JUST, Inc.), even said in 2017 that it could get the product to the market by 2018, albeit with some skepticism. The original hamburger demonstrated in 2013 cost $330,000. Improvements in the technology used to produce lab-grown meat and decreasing the cost of its production have become key factors in bringing the product from the lab to the market. As early as 1931, Winston Churchill wrote, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Potentially, in the not too distant future, this futuristic-sounding idea of eating meat grown in a lab could become an actual reality.