Could Science Create a Kosher Cheeseburger?
(JTA) — When the world’s first lab-grown burger taste-tested on Monday, the event seemed full of promise for environmentalists, animal lovers and vegetarians.
Another group that had good reason to be excited? Kosher consumers.
The world’s first in-vitro burger, made using stem cells and soaked in a nutrient broth that might make Upton Sinclair shudder, was triumphantly declared “close to meat” by two taste-testers in London. Five years in the making, the meat patties were essentially an “animal protein cake”, according to one taster.
The burger was created by harvesting stem cells from a portion of cow shoulder muscle that were multiplied in petri dishes to form tiny strips of muscle fiber. About 20,000 of the strips were needed to create the five-ounce burger, which was financed partially by Google founder Sergey Brin and unveiled by Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
PETA hailed the event as a “first step” toward humanely producing meat products. A University of Amsterdam study shows that lab-grown meat could significantly reduce the environmental impact of beef production.
For kosher-observant Jews, the burgers could open the door to radical dietary changes — namely, the birth of the kosher cheeseburger.
That’s because meat produced through this process could be considered parve — neither meat nor dairy — according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division.
Several key conditions would have to be met to create kosher, parve cultured beef. The tissue samples would have to come from an animal that had been slaughtered according to kosher rules, not from a biopsy from a live animal, Genack said.
The principle underlying this theory is much like the status of gelatin in Jewish law: Though it is derived from an animal, it is not meat.
In an interview with the Forward, Genack argued that even the meat of non-kosher animals could be manufactured in a kosher fashion if the final product was sufficiently removed from the origin, though he was not sure our technical knowledge is ready to do so. For example, if a cell from a correctly slaughtered cow could be rigged to use the DNA of a pig, we might well have kosher bacon on our hands.
But not everyone is so sure about this. Rabbi J. David Bleich of Yeshiva University is skeptical such meat would be kosher. Ideally “one wouldn’t pursue making that kind of meat,” he said, comparing it to milk produced by a cow on Passover that had eaten only leavened products, milk which is therefore non-kosher. But kosher chefs aren’t heating up the parve griddles just yet.
The lab-born burger, which cost $325,000 and took two years to make, is still a long way from market viability, kosher or otherwise. If mass produced, it could still cost $30 per pound, researchers said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Jeff Nathan, the executive chef at Abigael’s on Broadway, a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. “Until it’s in my hands and I can touch it, smell it and taste it, I don’t believe it.”
Even if cultured beef became commonplace, consumers still might not be interested, said Elie Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Empire Kosher, the nation’s largest kosher poultry producer.
“Parve burgers made of tofu and vegetables have been on the market for years,” Rosenfeld said. “But customers are still looking for the real deal, a product that’s wholesome and genuine.”
Nevertheless, Nathan sounded an enthusiastic note about the potential for parve meat.
“I’m all for experimentation and science,” he said. “Let’s see what it tastes like!”
With Doni Bloomfield