Could Big Science Produce A Kosher Cheeseburger?


For kosher carnivores, news of the world’s first “test-tube burger” prompted daydreams of forbidden fare. Think sizzling strips of kosher bacon grown from the cells of a pig, or a kosher, all-beef slider topped with melted cheese.

The burger that Dutch scientists presented last week in London was generated from a living cow’s stem cells, and many kosher consumers grilled one another for more details: Would kosher authorities view this “lab burger” as meat? Or would it be pareve, allowing an otherwise prohibited slice of cheese to slip between a patty and bun? Do the cells need to come from a kosher animal?

The answer to all of the above: A definite maybe.

“These are good questions, but this product is not going to be viable in the near future,” says Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, a leading certifier of kosher foods. Pollak noted the hefty price tag of $330,000 of the burger, which was paid for in part by Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin.

Precedents exist for kosher products whose source is not kosher, says Pollak, but Star-K would need to investigate further before making a determination. Pollak adds that to his mind, the biggest challenge in creating kosher “lab meat” would be finding an appropriate medium in which to incubate it, since it would be costly to acquire kosher fetal calf serum, which the Dutch scientists used to culture the cells.

“From what I know about this thing, for sure it’s not kosher,” says, Rabbi Menachem Genack, who is the chief executive officer of OU Kosher, the world’s largest certifier of kosher foods. Rabbi Genack explains that Jewish law prohibits eating meat if it is from an animal that has not been slaughtered in the kosher manner. Cells taken from the live cow would not be deemed kosher. He also believes that the cells would need to be drawn from a kosher species.

On the other hand, says Rabbi Genack, if the stem cells were collected from a kosher animal, and the animal had been slaughtered in the proper religious manner, the end product would not only be kosher, but also would likely be parve. Even though the artificial meat is derived from an animal, kosher laws would treat it differently because of the way it had been processed, Rabbi Genack suggests. A similar logic applies to gelatin.

Rabbi Genack also doesn’t rule out the possibility of a future technology that would allow the original cells to be drawn from an unkosher animal. “There are possibilities further on,” he said. “There’s a midrash which says that there will come a time when a pig will be kosher.”

Many Jewish environmentalists aren’t particularly hungering for kosher bacon, but are hopeful that this “lab meat” might one day be a boon for animals, workers and our planet. After all, even if the process to obtain kosher lab meat does require slaughter, the number of animals raised and killed for meat could be greatly reduced.

Mark Post, one of the Danish researchers involved in the project, estimates that a single sample of stem cells could produce enough cultured meat to make 175 million quarter-pounders, according to the Economist magazine. To obtain that much beef conventionally would require slaughtering 440,000 cows.

“Ideally, we’d all be vegans,” says Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, focused on animal welfare and “kosher veganism,” as well as preservation of the environment. “If people really love meat, this could be a stepping stone.” Vegans avoid eating not just meat but all animal products, such as dairy and eggs.

Rabbi Yanklowitz adds that “in addition to the massive potential for eliminating a huge amount of animal suffering, it seems the cultured meat may use around 99 percent less land, 96 percent less water, 45 percent less energy, and produce 96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat.” But, he says, “We need to be sure this new food is best for human health.”

Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental organization, sounds a similar note of cautious optimism. “On the one hand, there’s something inherently scary about our ability to manipulate the natural world. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should do something.” But, Savage adds, if the artificial meat “actually saves animal lives — and the run-off [pollution] and other problems inherent in meat production — then I think it’s something we should think about.”

Some ecologically minded Jews found themselves fantasizing about the culinary possibilities presented by pareve patties. Simon Feil, an actor and sushi chef who lives in Brooklyn, and used to run a small, ethical kosher meat co-op known as Kosher Conscience, confesses that he has been consumed by thoughts of a kosher cheeseburger.

On the other hand, Naftali Hanau, CEO and founder of the company Grow and Behold, which sells kosher, humanely raised meats, has a beef with the whole concept. He isn’t convinced that a test-tube burger can ever be packed with the flavor and nutrition of one made from his pasture-fed cattle. He points out that the tasters of last week’s sample complained that it lacked fat and juiciness.

“I’m not interested in meat produced that way,” says Hanau. It won’t ever taste like a hamburger prepared “the way God intended it to be made.”