Is Lab-Grown Steak Kosher? Religious Leaders Weigh Meaty Questions

REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
The logo of Aleph Farms, an Israeli company producing lab-grown steak from cow cells, is seen at their office in Rehovot, Israel June 26, 2019.

Is lab-grown meat truly meat?

The question is increasingly being asked as consumers prepare for the proliferation of cultivated meat, which is grown from animal cells in a lab, no slaughter involved. But whether it qualifies as meat is not being debated just by vegetarians and vegans. Faith leaders are grappling with how to treat it under religious dietary guidelines.

Last week, the leader of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – a bellwether rabbinic council for religious certifications in Judaism – declared that an Israeli company’s lab-grown steak is “pareve.” That means, in his view, it is not milk or meat and that therefore the eating of the two together by those who follow a kosher diet is not forbidden.

But the declaration was greeted with surprise by Rabbi Menachem Genack, the chief executive of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division in New York. Orthodox Union Kosher is an influential federation of Orthodox synagogues in the United States and Canada. Genack, in an interview with The Washington Post, suggested that his organization may take a different view.

This debate is the latest example of how this novel form of meat, which is about to arrive on the U.S. market, is shaking up norms and raising vexing questions. Cultivated meat is being hailed as a humane and climate-friendly solution to traditional animal agriculture, which has increasingly come under fire for its contribution to the warming of the planet.

As of now, Singapore is the only country in which these products are legally sold to consumers. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded late last year that cultivated chicken from a California company is safe to eat, likely to open the floodgates for lab-grown meat to be available for sale in the United States in the coming months.

Many religions – including Islam, Hinduism, Seventh-day Adventism and Judaism – have practitioners who adhere to faith-based dietary restrictions.

The spiritual question, at its most basic, is: If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, tastes like a duck, but you’re not supposed to eat a duck, does God consider this “cheating”? Some faith leaders suggest that if technology enables humans to eat foods that are more environmentally sustainable, reduce animal suffering and potentially improve human health, surely any divinity would applaud this development. Others focus more on faithfulness to original intent.

“I used to think talking about Israel was the third rail,” said Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard, the executive director of Jewish Initiative for Animals in Los Angeles. “Talking to people about food? Oh, my goodness. Israel is child’s play. Food is so intimate, so personal and touches so many elements of our lives. The way forward is going to be messy.”

Anticipating conflicting opinions, Bernhard says individual communities will make different decisions, potentially causing “fissures.” He predicts, “it will be more polarizing within the Orthodox community.”

And, already, it has been.

Genack, of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, said on the evening of the Chief Rabbinate’s decision, “The Orthodox Union is taking a different position. One opinion is it’s considered meat; they took the position that it’s completely pareve [and thus not meat].” The OU is the largest organization of Orthodox synagogues in the United States, responsible for certifying more than 400,000 industrial and consumer products.

Fresh off a flight from Israel, Genack said of Israeli Chief Rabbi David Baruch Lau, “I have a high regard for him. He wrote four or five pages discussing his position. we are going to have to review his responses. Applying ancient law to brand new technology is fascinating.”

At issue for Genack: Anything derived from something not kosher is also not kosher. Kosher certification confirms that a food product has been properly vetted and monitored for rigorous compliance with traditional Jewish dietary law. These are rules about which foods are allowed or forbidden, but also about how permitted foods must be produced, processed and prepared for eating.

“We thought that the stem cells had to come from an animal that was kosher-slaughtered or it is non-kosher stem cells,” he said. The OU has not yet made a ruling.

Still, he conceded that approving cultivated meat as kosher would be a huge help in reducing the carbon footprint of the meat people consume. Bernhard, similarly, said, “If cultured meat fulfills the promise of being less destructive to the environment and people’s health and less cruel to animals, then it would be preferable.”

Kosher approval could mean a windfall to the Israeli cultivated-beef producer Aleph Farms. The size of the global kosher beef market is expected to attain a value of more than $100 billion by 2030. The growing preference for kosher beef in key countries such as the United States, France and Israel, which together account for more than 86 percent of the global Jewish population, is driving the market. About 10 percent of the United States’ 5.5 million Jews consider themselves Orthodox.

The next step is to go to market with products, said Aleph chief executive Didier Toubia. The company will focus first on launching this year in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, he said, with a U.S. launch expected next year. He said much of Asia and the Middle East import the majority of their beef because the climate in those regions is unsuitable for raising cattle and also because they do not grow enough grains for animal feed. Aleph also is working on getting halal certification for Muslims, whose global population is about 2 billion.

Halal certification of cultivated meat is not a foregone conclusion.

“Cultivated meat is a very controversial subject. Internally, Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America is having a robust conversation, and it will take some time for us to come up with a position on the subject,” spokeswoman Alison DeGuide said Friday. Her organization is a nonprofit that helps consumers and companies source authentic halal products.

Roger Othman, a former director of consumer relations for the council, said halal products must not contain haram, or forbidden, ingredients. Also, they must be produced in facilities where no cross-contamination with haram ingredients may occur. For meat products, the species must be halal, the animal must be slaughtered by a Muslim and meet all other halal requirements.

Therein lies the problem. In the case of cultivated beef, there is no slaughter.

In 2021, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, took a stand against lab-grown meat, writing in a statement that such meat falls “into the category of carcass which is legally unclean and forbidden to be consumed.” But in Pakistan, leaders including the Islamic-law expert Muhammad Taqi Usmani said lab-grown meat could be permissible if the cells used to create it came from animals slaughtered in compliance with sharia standards.

Aleph also is seeking approval from leaders of Hinduism, India’s most widely practiced religion. Many Hindus avoid eating beef because they view cows as sacred.

Mat McDermott, the director of communications at the Hindu American Foundation, says that plant-based beef is perfectly fine for Hindus from an ethical perspective. Some may eat it, some may not, but that is down to personal preference.

“Cultured beef is still an unknown, as is any other cultured meat, in terms of adoption by Hindus who are otherwise vegetarian or vegan,” McDermott said. “From the standpoint of nonviolence, both do indeed reduce animal suffering, as well as theoretically reduce the amount of land needed to grow both crops for animal feed and to raise the animals.”

For himself, though, he wouldn’t eat it, because, “the detrimental health effects of consuming animal flesh will be similar if it is cultured meat or slaughtered meat.”

Seventh-day Adventists’ founder Ellen G. White once said, “Meat eating will eventually be done away; flesh will cease to form a part of [people’s] diet.” About half of American Adventists are vegetarian, and the Christian denomination has a long history with plant-based meat. It founded Loma Linda, one of the earliest mass-market soy- and wheat-based “meat” companies in the United States. Although the SDA denomination promotes a vegetarian diet, clean meat can be eaten, with unclean meat defined similarly to kosher standards, with pork and shellfish frowned upon.

The SDA Church has not made a statement about which way it is leaning with cultivated meat, but it has taken a firm stand on climate change, saying in a statement on its website, “the ecological crisis is rooted in humankind’s greed and refusal to practice good and faithful stewardship.”