It’s been five years since the world’s most expensive hamburger was unveiled at an international media event in London, U.K. Back in August 2013, there was much hoopla when a British chef prepared a burger made from lab-grown meat.
At US$330,000 or $1.2 million per pound, this Petri-dish burger – it was produced from bovine stem cells – was certainly not ready for the consumer market.
But that price has plunged as bio-tech companies race to produce lab-grown meat sold at a competitive price.
In February 2016, Newsweek reported that Memphis Meats, a U.S. start-up, had created Petri-dish beef for $18,000 per pound. The following year, that price dropped to $6,000, according to Quartz.
At this price, we may not find lab-grown beef on dinner tables any time soon, but rabbis from the various Jewish streams are beginning to discuss the halakhic implications of this bio-tech food.
And while their opinions may vary on issues of kashrut, there is more commonality than difference with regards to the ethical implications of lab-grown meat. Rabbis from all streams of Judaism welcome technology that could reduce unnecessary suffering of animals.
“A meatless burger is an exciting proposition,” says Richard Rabkin, managing director of the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR), but there is no “firm dictum” on a matter that will be determined in the future.
However, he says there are two main issues that the rabbis of COR have decided: the meat cells must come from species of animals that are kosher and the cells can only be removed after the animal has been halakhically slaughtered.
Rabbi Aaron Levy, founder and executive director of Makom, an independent congregation in downtown Toronto, has been a vegan since 2006, but he was vegetarian years before.
He says he stopped eating meat primarily out of concern for animal welfare and the environment, and he questions “the ethics of how animals are raised and killed, especially in today’s factory-farm system.”
For this reason, he welcomes the development of Petri-dish beef: “If lab-grown meat takes off and it greatly reduces the number of animals killed, that would be a really positive step.”
Such food would also have a beneficial impact on the environment, he says. “Raising animals is one of the greatest contributors to global warming” in terms of the amount of grain grown for feeding livestock, and the amount of water used for raising and processing animals.
Similar to Rabbi Levy, Adam Cutler, senior rabbi of Adath Israel Congregation, says he no longer eats meat for moral reasons. “A big motivation was ethical concern with meat production. Factory farming does not fit into my Jewish worldview.”
Rabbi Cutler has become a pescatarian (a vegetarian who eats fish), but he confesses that he misses meat. “I am interested in some of the ways of producing lab-grown meat that eliminate the ethical concerns.”
He says that, according to Rabbi Daniel Nevins – dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who sits on the advisory committee on Jewish law for the Conservative movement – the initial source for lab-grown meat must be a kosher animal and the product would be considered meat.
“There is a strong recommendation that the growth medium needs to be kosher,” says Rabbi Cutler, explaining that these mixtures often contain blood, which is not kosher.
Michael Dolgin, senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, says from a Reform perspective, kashrut is a question of balancing different values.
“By identifying one’s practice as Jewish, we value avoiding unnecessary suffering of animals and caring for the environment with those modern scientific values of technology.
“In my Judaism of the future, we can harvest stem cells without killing an animal. There’s no reason we wouldn’t be able to do it and that gets around the issue of kosher slaughter. One does not have to judge whether or not the slaughter was appropriate.”
He says a bigger piece of the issue is marit ayin, which literally means how something looks to the eye. “The kashrut authority not only looks at the source of foods, but how it appears in accordance with the traditional values.
“A lab-grown meat burger with cheese, even though it’s lab-grown and may not technically be meat, still looks like a cheeseburger.
“If people see the rabbi eating a cheeseburger made with lab-grown meat, they may think they can go ahead and eat regular meat with cheese.”
While the Reform movement is less strict than its Orthodox and Conservative counterparts when it comes to kashrut, Rabbi Dolgin stresses that as part of the greater community, Temple Sinai follows all the traditional rules of kashrut.
The rabbi says it’s hard to take a position on a technology that doesn’t exist: “Philosophically we would be balancing the technicalities of the production of the meat and our values of respecting the wider community, caring for the environment and avoiding the unnecessary suffering to animals.”
Rabbi Aaron Greenberg is the director of the Orthodox Union (OU) Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus in Canada, which partners with Hillel. He also teaches ethics at TanenbaumCHAT and he runs services for young adults on Shabbat and holiday mornings at the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation.
According to the OU, lab-produced meat cannot be pareve, he says. “I do think there will be a kosher synthetic option in the next decade….
t will be meat grown from a properly halakhically killed animal.”
He says creating meat and replicating the work of God is not forbidden in Judaism; such new technology is acceptable.
“In Judaism, we have been empowered on ethical issues if we can use science to enhance and advance humankind to improve the world and reduce suffering.”
Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, head beit midrash at Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion, has done a lot of teaching on modern technology and Judaism.
“As the production cost for lab-grown meat becomes more reasonable, we’re going to see this in the next five years.”
He says there are two dominant schools of thought, vis-a-vis the designation of such a product. One school says it’s meat, while the other views it as an entirely new end product and so it can be kosher and pareve, regardless of the origin of the cell.
“Communities will have to know who to follow…. We haven’t seen a dispute like this since the development of gelatin 100 years ago, when geography played a major role in influencing positions.
“Today, many Israeli authorities have expressed permissive opinions regarding lab-grown meat, while North American rabbis are more hesitant.”
He says the dispute over simulated meat may become a “moot point” if a high-quality, vegetable-based meat substitute can get kosher certification.
That will reduce the number of animals slaughtered, say Rabbi Torczyner. “It’s potentially healthier and more ecology sound and affordable.
“Judaism places such a high value on preserving the world and not wasting it…. These substitutes bode very well for the future.”