Orthodox Union certifies Israeli brand of lab-grown meat as kosher — but not pareve

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Orthodox Union certifies Israeli brand of lab-grown meat as kosher — but not pareve

The O.U., the most prominent kosher certifier in the United States, now recognises poultry products from Israeli startup SuperMeat as kosher.

Israeli chef Shachar Yogev serves a burger made with "cultured chicken" meat at The Chicken, SuperMeat's restaurant adjacent to their production site in the Israeli town of Ness Ziona on June 18, 2021. (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli chef Shachar Yogev serves a burger made with "cultured chicken" meat at The Chicken, SuperMeat's restaurant adjacent to their production site in the Israeli town of Ness Ziona on June 18, 2021. (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

The Orthodox Union has granted kosher certification to a type of lab-grown meat, a decision that could signal an expansion of the options available under Judaism’s intricate dietary laws.

The O.U., the most prominent kosher certifier in the United States, recognised poultry products from Israeli startup SuperMeat as kosher, the company announced Wednesday.

The startup is part of a growing industry that aims to provide an alternative to traditional meat by creating the food in a laboratory from stem cells.

“This collaboration aims to bridge the gap between scientific understanding and halachic adjudication, setting unprecedented standards in the cultivated meat industry,” Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of O.U. Kosher, said in a statement, using a term referring to Jewish law.

The process of certifying lab-grown meat, a years-long quest for SuperMeat, demonstrated the complexity of applying Judaism’s age-old dietary laws to a culinary landscape where the range of foods, and how they are produced, is expanding rapidly — from lab-grown meat to plant-based alternatives and more.

It may also represent yet another increase in the number of products kosher consumers can take off supermarket shelves.

“This step represents our commitment to inclusivity and respect for diverse dietary needs, making our cultivated chicken meat accessible to audiences around the world,” Ido Savir, CEO of SuperMeat, said in a statement.

“We believe this historic initiative with the Orthodox Union not only broadens the options for kosher consumers worldwide but will also set clear guidelines for other companies in the cultivated meat industry seeking kosher certification, opening new avenues for the Kosher food industry.”

The lab-grown meat industry is in its infancy and may appeal to consumers who enjoy eating meat but oppose slaughtering animals for food. It remains to be seen whether lab-grown meat produced at a mass scale will be cheaper or more environmentally sustainable than regular beef or poultry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted its first approval for cell-cultured meat in late June, and SuperMeat first plans to roll out its products in the United States. The company is also looking into halal certification.

“The vast majority of the vegan-vegetarian movement is very supportive,” SuperMeat’s co-founder and CEO, Koby Barak, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2016. “And we thank them for really supporting us.”

On the surface, kosher certification for lab-grown meat doesn’t appear to herald a revolution for observant Jewish eaters, especially in places where traditional kosher animal products are already easy to find.

As with regular chicken, the O.U. has certified the lab-grown variety as kosher meat, meaning that it can’t be eaten with dairy products. That separates it from recent plant-based meat alternatives such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, many of whose products are certified as pareve — neither meat nor dairy — meaning that they may be eaten together with all kosher foods.

Plant-based meat has provided a pathway for observant Jews to eat imitations of some archetypal non-kosher foods, such as cheeseburgers or pizza with a meat topping. SuperMeat will not offer those kinds of possibilities.

But Genack said that for Jews who keep a stringent form of kosher laws, SuperMeat’s certification will be a boon. “Theoretically, the impact on prices and availability should be significant,” he said.

That’s because the company’s chicken products are categorised as Mehadrin kosher — the strictest form of kosher supervision. And if the O.U. moves to certify lab-grown beef as kosher, which it has yet to do, it could lead to an increase in the supply of meat that is “glatt” kosher, a term that refers to meat slaughtered from an animal whose lungs are smooth.

The kosher seal of approval came after SuperMeat hosted two rabbinic delegations, and kosher authorities held a series of conversations on Jewish law surrounding the science used in the company’s technology, the Times of Israel reported.

Obtaining kosher certification for lab-grown meat is complicated because the process of cultivating meat from stem cells requires the use of living animals — and kosher law bars the consumption of any part of a living animal. Founded in 2015, SuperMeat’s lab-grown poultry avoids this dilemma by acquiring stem cells from eggs rather than from the living birds themselves.

And because the eggs are at an early stage of fertilisation, there’s no concern that blood will end up in the product, which would also be prohibited by Jewish law.

“We were looking for something that can be universally accepted as Mehadrin, completely kosher, and that’s what taking the stem cells from the eggs represents,” Genack said.

The cells are planted in a meat fermenter that simulates a bird’s biology. In the fermenter, the cells are provided with heat, oxygen, and plant-based liquid nourishment. They then mature into meat tissue and grow quickly, doubling in mass in just a few hours. When the meat is ready to harvest, the liquid feed is removed.

Other Orthodox rabbis, such as Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, have ruled that some lab-grown meat labeled as a meat alternative could be considered pareve. Genack said that at the Orthodox Union, there were different opinions on how lab-grown meat should be classified.

But the agency decided to mark it as meat because it’s derived from an animal and looks exactly like meat.

Leading rabbis in the Conservative movement came to the same conclusion in 2018, ruling that lab-grown meat of kosher animals would be kosher but that disputes over its status and possible confusion meant it should be considered meat.

“Cultured meat should be designated as ‘meaty according to the rabbis’ even though there will be no need for kosher slaughter, inspection for injury, deveining, soaking or salting to remove blood,” wrote Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the author of the legal opinion on the topic that was accepted almost unanimously by the movement’s law committee.

Genack noted that lab-grown pork will remain off-limits because it is derived from a pig, which is not kosher. (The O.U. also declined to give certification to Impossible Pork, even though it is plant-based, because of what Genack called “sensitivities to the consumer.”)

“Anything which you derive from something non-kosher itself is not kosher,” he said. “If you milk a non-kosher animal, the milk is also non-kosher, because it derived from a non-kosher source. So this doesn’t open that opportunity.”

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