fFor years, the burgeoning cultured meat industry has balked at critics who say their product, grown with a nutrient broth in a stainless steel vat, is not meat. But when Israel’s Chief Rabbi ruled that Aleph Farms’ skinny steak — a credit-card-sized cut of beef grown from bovine stem cells that sizzles, tastes and smells just like its conventional twin — isn’t meat, it was cause for celebration.
On January 18, Chief Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s pre-eminent Jewish authority, after consulting with the production and research teams at Aleph Farms in Rehovot, Israel, stated that Aleph’s steak could be considered kosher – permitted to be eaten for those who follow the specific dietary laws of Judaism.
In fact, he wrote in a judgment translated from Jerusalem post OfficeAleph’s steak, which is not from a slaughtered animal and contains no blood, should be considered parve—a vegetable product that is neither milk nor meat.
While actual kosher certification can only be performed by a certifying institution, and only then when commercial sales are approved by regulators, this is an important step forward for a fledgling industry trying to change the way the world meat produced to revolutionize. It’s the first time a religious leader has officially ruled on whether or not cultured meat is acceptable for dietary restrictions. “This is a huge step forward and a very important milestone if we are to feed the next generation,” said Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. Toubia himself is kosher, but that’s not why the verdict matters, he says. Aleph Farms will also seek Halal certification for Muslim communities, as well as a decision on whether or not devout Hindus who do not eat beef can eat Aleph steaks. “This is a protein solution for the world, not just San Francisco and New York. We really want to make sure that most of the world’s population can enjoy the benefits of cultured meat,” says Toubia.
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As cultured meat nears the market, Singapore is the only country currently allowing the sale of cultured chicken from San Francisco-based startup GOOD Meat, but the US is likely to follow soon after the Food and Drug Administration found that upside Food’s cultured chicken is “safe for human consumption” — the conversation has shifted from whether or not it’s possible to produce it on a commercial scale, and whether or not people will actually eat it. While sales of kosher beef represent only a fraction of the global beef market, Israel’s chief rabbi’s imprimatur offers a sane-seeming seal of approval for a new innovation that might otherwise be viewed by science as startling food adulteration.
Like most cultured meat companies, Aleph Farms uses a small sample of cells painlessly collected from live cattle to start the cell lines that form the basis of all of their products. These cells are grown in a nutrient-rich broth in a medical-grade bioreactor until they can be harvested as real pieces of meat, a process that usually takes a few weeks. Through this meat production, companies like Aleph Farms hope to significantly reduce not only animal suffering but also the outsized impact of livestock farming on global warming. According to the United Nations, livestock contributes 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
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“There are tremendous benefits to synthetic meat,” says Rabbi Menachem Genack, the New York-based CEO of the Orthodox Union, one of the world’s largest kosher certifying bodies, using an alternative term for cultured meat. But as much as he would like companies like Aleph Farms to succeed, he disagrees with Rabbi Lau — despite being a personal friend. “Without disrespect to the chief rabbi, we disagree. [Aleph’s steak] cannot be kosher.”
In Rabbi Genack’s interpretation of kosher laws, meat must be viewed in terms of its origin—in the case of cultured meat, the parent animal for the original cell lineage. When meat is harvested from a live animal, even a microscopic amount of cells, “it’s not kosher,” says Genack. The solution is to obtain genetic material from a freshly slaughtered animal. “Maybe that’s a bit of a challenge, but if it were possible, it would be kosher.” While that would be theoretically possible, it would go against the main selling point of cultured meat companies: no animal slaughter.
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The dissenting opinions of some of the world’s leading authorities on the Jewish dietary law stem from differing perspectives on cultured meat. Since it is grown and not slaughtered, it is not considered meat in Rabbi Lau’s decision. But because it looks like meat, tastes like meat, and is of animal origin, it is is Meat, and the rules for kosher meat should be applied accordingly, says Rabbi Genack. Both agree that cultured meat, whether permitted by Jewish dietary law or not, should not be served with dairy products lest it violate one of the most important kosher laws of all: the ban on cooking meat with milk. So that still means no cheeseburgers, even with plant-based cheese.
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