A sign of the end of days, via a petri dish
I can has cheezburger?

A sign of the end of days, via a petri dish

With the announcement of the world’s first stem-cell burger, religious Jews are anxious to hear if it will be called meat or parve

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Kosher cheeseburger? (Illustrative photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Kosher cheeseburger? (Illustrative photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

When scientists last week announced they had created the world’s first stem-cell burger, there were but two questions on the lips of kosher carnivores across the world: is it kosher, and can I eat it with cheese?

Both questions remain yet to be resolved, giving a new meaning to the term “mystery meat.”

Because the stem-cell burger, which cost a whopping $300,000 to produce, was grown in a laboratory rather than slaughtered from a living being, there is little precedent in the laws of kashrut for religious Jews to take their guidance from.

It took five years of research to produce the space-age meat, which was culled from a petri dish in a lab at Maastrich University in the Netherlands. Funding for the project came from Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google. Led by Mark Post, Dutch scientists created the stem-cell burger by growing new tissue strands from the muscle cells of a cow.

That tissue was formed into a patty, which was flown to London and cooked and eaten at a press conference for food journalists. Two of the writers on hand tasted the burger and said that while its texture seemed very similar to that of meat, it was missing the flavor and fatty depth that usually accompanies ground meat. The burger, which in its natural state is a pasty white, had also been colored with a natural beetroot dye so as to mimic the color of meat.

Taste and texture aside, Jews around the world are now asking how to determine if this Jetsons-style food is verboten or not.

There is one very important paradigm that could help, says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Department, and that is gelatin. To determine if its meat is kosher, the first step is to determine if the cow that provided the muscle strands was slaughtered according to Jewish dietary law.

“Gelatin starts off from the hides and the bones of the animal, and it is OU policy that for it to be kosher, it must start with a kosher hide,” Elefant says.

There has been a lot of buzz at the Orthodox Union over the classification of the stem-cell burger, Elefant says, much of which has come from the fact that journalists keep on calling to ask if the rabbis have made a decision on its status. They have not.

“We haven’t made any definitive rulings, but we’ve obviously had many calls,” he says. “It’s an interesting topic, but not enough has really been said yet about what technology is going to be used in order to produce this product for us to make a definitive ruling.”

There are so many breathless kosher consumers, excited by the scientific breakthrough of lab-created meat and enticed by the idea that they might, at long last, be able to join their non-Jewish friends in sitting down for a cheeseburger and fries, that chabad.org recently posted a careful question-and-answer segment on the product.

Noting that this scientific breakthrough is an example of a “seemingly fantastic” Talmudic tale coming through, author Yehuda Shurpin explains on the site that in order to truly understand the kosher status of this so-called miracle meat, it will need to be examined by virtue of both its cells and as a full-fledged product.

“For Jews, if the cells are considered real meat, then presumably they would need to be extracted from a kosher animal that was slaughtered according to Jewish law,” he writes, before adding one paragraph later that it’s not yet entirely clear if that Jewish law applies to cells at such a microscopic level.

As far as the product is concerned, Shurpin notes that Jewish law allows the presence of non-kosher ingredients within a kosher product as long as the ratio of kosher to non-kosher is at least 60 to 1. That would lead consumers to believe that if the original cells that the burger sprouted from are not kosher, it may still pass muster. Not so fast, Shurpin says. In this case, the non-kosher product would be the stem cells themselves, which are the “davar ha’amid,” or essential item from which the rest of the product is grown. Because of this, the so-called loophole does not apply.

Elefant says that the rabbis will likely make a ruling in the near future, and there is a very real possibility that upon examination of all the laws, they will decide that the burger is indeed both kosher and parve. The possibility of this technology leading to the world’s first kosher cheeseburger, then, is very real. And that is because the precedent-setter of gelatin, which comes from animal products, does itself carry a distinction of parve, meaning it can be eaten with both meat or milk products without violating any kosher laws.

“As long as you start with a kosher hide, through the processing of which gelatin is made, the gelatin ultimately is kosher parve,” Elefant explains. But even if the rabbis do decide that the stem-cell burger does not count as meat, he adds, the product will still have to be treated with care. Those who follow strict laws of kashrut would be advised to follow the tradition that accompanies products such as almond milk, which while parve in nature is similar enough to dairy that it needs to be carefully labeled to avoid confusion.

“If you’re serving almond milk at a table where meat is being served you have to put on the table some sign or sort of recognition that this not regular milk, it’s not cow’s milk, it’s parve,” he says. “So if we’ll ever have a truly kosher cheeseburger we’re also going to have to come up with a way to signify that it is not real meat.”

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