What is the kosher status of laboratory “grown” meat?

Technology continues to dazzle the halachic imagination in ways that our ancestors could not have ever imagined. Researchers in the Netherlands managed to create soggy pork and are looking into ways of improving its texture so that it might be an edible alternative to eating real meat. To date, nobody has yet to taste the meat to see how it fares, but assuming that it is tasty, rabbis will have to determine whether it is fit for kosher consumption or not.

According to the European news,  Rib Steak“You could take the meat from one animal and create the volume of meat previously provided by a million animals.” Meat produced in a laboratory could reduce greenhouse gas (a.k.a.,  “flatulence” and believe you me, the French, British, and Swedes are real experts on this problem!) emissions associated with real animals. Those clever little Europeans–they are always worrying about air pollution and global warming!

Ever since the days of watching Star Trek, I always wondered what would be the status of replicator generated food? Would the laws of kashrut even apply? Obviously, I am reasonably certain the majority of Haredi rabbis would look for a thousand reasons why they should prohibit such food.

That being the case, I went to the classical texts of Jewish law to see for myself what the interpretive possibilities might be. There is one story from the Talmud that reminds me about this case.  We read that “R. Hanina and R. Oshaia spent every Sabbath eve in studying the ‘Book of Creation’ by means of which they created a third-grown calf (the time when a calf’s meat is considered to be at its tastiest–Rashi) and ate it.”

Unfortunately, the Talmud does not inform us whether the two rabbis mixed the meat with milk, or whether they even ritually slaughtered it; all it says is that they merely ate it–without ritual slaughter, because the laws of kashrut did not apply to the esoteric sciences that produced the animal in the first place!  One could argue that the esoteric method of the Sages is analogous to the new esoteric technology of science.

Now, with respect to rennet, rennet is commonly produced from the stomach lining of a cow or calf  and is used as a curdling and coagulating agent. Kosher hard cheese is produced with microbial rennet that is derived from kosher sources. Since  hard cheese is often made with animal rennet, many Orthodox rabbis (but not all), take the view that the rennet must come from a kosher animal that has been properly slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law.

However, some Orthodox and many Conservative rabbis take the view that the rennet substance has been chemically altered and is no longer considered in the category of food and is an altogether different substance (similar arguments have also been made by several Orthodox rabbis with respect to gelatin), and is therefore considered kosher regardless of the origin.

Classical kashrut texts often raise an interesting question: Why aren’t we concerned about the mixing of meat and milk, since the lining definitely comes from the lining (i.e., meat) and is used to coagulate the milk for cheese?  Actually, the law regarding animal-derived enzymes in cheese are so minuscule, especially since the enzymes are not being cooked with the milk; in addition, they are also flavorless.  Based on this line of reasoning, a similar argument might be made with respect to the laboratory created meat; the flavorless DNA cell is not even in the category of food, even though it can paradoxically be used to make an almost perfect facsimile of meat, but is still permitted!

Of course contrarian arguments could easily be mustered against this line of reasoning. Halachic sources often speak about a davar ha’ma’mid. Here is how the principle works. Any product containing a minuscule amount of a non-kosher ingredient may still be considered kosher, provided that the non-kosher substance is batel, or nullified by at least a factor of 60 x 1.

However, rennet used in hard cheese cannot be batel (negated) because the essential non-kosher ingredient is precisely what gives a product its form and is called a davar hama’amid. Consequently, it can never be nullified regardless of the trace amounts (Yoreh Deah 87:11). Based on this reasoning, one could argue that the manner in which this DNA is used in creating laboratory meat certainly–at first glance–might resemble the principle we have just explained . . .

Even the most Orthodox and Haredi rabbis have no problem with encouraging their followers to take their insulin shots, despite the fact they are  made of porcine product. However, the rational of the biblical prohibition only pertains to orally ingest pork, but may benefit from non-kosher foods or their byproducts in other ways. This applies to non-medical areas as well, such as playing football with a pigskin ball, pig-skin gloves, or wearing clothing made of leather which comes from a non-kosher animal. Based on this approach, one is actually ingesting the man-created pork, which derives from a non-kosher source; ergo, it ought to be prohibited.

So, how should one proceed? Well, the answer to this question really depends on the philosophical leanings of the rabbi being asked.

To borrow a famous analogy from R. Yaakob Kranz[2] (1741-1804), how we arrive at a given conclusion is analogous to a person shooting a bull’s-eye. One way involves using skill to hit the center of the target. The other method involves shooting at a random target and then painting concentric circles around wherever the arrow lands. Rabbis who take a strict approach will argue that the new technology personifies the davar ha’ma’mid better than the rabbis could ever have imagined; those who take a lenient approach will counter that the davar ha’ma’mid is according to most rabbinical views, a rabbinical prohibition at best [3]; if there are other ingredients, then the 60x 1 principle certainly applies, and the food substance is permitted.

Lastly, yogurt is made  acidopilus and bifidus cultures are still considered kosher and are not considered “tola’im” (bugs) because prohibited lifeforms are only those that are visible to the naked eye and can only be seen with the aid of a microscope. The same argument can be also be made with the DNA material used to make meat.

After everything is said and done, I personally see nothing wrong with consuming this product provided the pareve label is easily available for all to see.

More to follow . . .

[1] T.B. Sanhedrin 65b.

[2] R. Yaakob Kranz is better known as the “Dubna Maggid.”

[3] See the Talmudic Encyclopedia reference listed below: אנציקלופדיה תלמודית כרך ו, דבר המעמיד [טור תקס that reads:

איסור של דבר המעמיד יש אומרים שהוא מן התורה45, אבל רוב הפוסקים סוברים שאיסורו מדרבנן46.

45. מרדכי ע”ז פ”ב סי’ תתכט לד’ הסוברים טעם כעיקר דאורייתא; מג”א סי’ תמב ס”ק ט לד’ הטור שם שאוסר להשהותו בפסח אע”פ שהוא סובר שהאסור מדרבנן א”צ לבערו, ועי”ש במחצית השקל; חת”ס יו”ד סי’ עט בד’ הראב”ן; אליהו רבה סי’ תמב ס”ק יא בשם ס’ אמרכל, ועי’ חת”ס שם.

. מרדכי חולין פ”ז סי’ תרעא בשם מהר”ם; או”ה כלל מז דין א, ועי”ש כלל כה דין ז, ועי’ מג”א שם בשמו; מהרי”ט ח”ב יו”ד סי’ ג; פר”ח יו”ד סי’ צח ס”ק ז וסי’ ק ס”ק ג; פמ”ג שער התערובת ח”ג פ”א; בית מאיר או”ח סי’ תמב; חק יעקב סי’ תמב ס”ק טו, ועי”ש שפקפק אף על הוכחת המג”א מהטור בציון הקודם: קו”א לשו”ע הרב סי’ תמב אות ט.

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  1. Mike C  December 4, 2009


    It’s an interesting question, and I wondered the same thing when I saw the report on “artificial pork” on the Daily Show (of all places).

    A particularly interesting point about this new “technology” is that what is being consumed is actual pig muscle tissue – it’s not as if the meat is synthesized from a batch of amino acids or in a Star Trek-style food creation device from raw elements. Of course, even if genetic engineers could breed a pig with cloven hoofs and a ruminant stomach, what would it mean for observant Jews to indulge in “kosher bacon”? I read once that Jews traveling through China were known by the locals as people who didn’t eat pork, and know of secular Jews that will not eat pork on principle as a way of maintaining a Jewish identity. If we could make pork that complies with the technical limitations of kashrut found in the written Torah, I think that many rabbis would hold that such pork was still not kosher.

    And even so, wouldn’t the resulting animal/non-slaughtered meat product have been taken, ultimately, from an old-fashioned treyf pig?

  2. admin  December 4, 2009

    Good observations! Again, since the original substance used is invisible to the eye (without the use of a microscope), a strong case could be made that it is kosher. Still and all, being a member of the Sina Institute and having visited China to visit the community of Kaifeng, one could see what happens to a society that forgets about these traditions. Dietary laws help create walls protecting a society from assimilation. Once these taboos were relaxed, the Chinese Jews all but assimilated. One interesting anecdote I will add is about the famous 17th century Jesuit missionary Father Ricci, who spent many years in China interacting with the Jewish community there. He was once even offered the position of “rabbi,” provided he would give up pork!!

    Bottom line, as I mentioned earlier in my article, a powerful argument could be made that since the DNA can be used to essentially replicate billions x billions times its original size, one could easily conclude that it makes no difference. However, personally, an opposite case could be persuasively argued that the original substance is invisible to the naked eye, and ergo is permitted to eat.


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