Kosher cheeseburgers? Chief rabbi rules some cultured meat may not be ‘fleishig’

Rabbi David Lau says beef cultivated from stem cells could be considered ‘pareve’ if it’s marketed as a meat alternative, but not if it claims to be the real deal

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An encased thin-cut, cultivated steak made by Israeli food tech startup Aleph Farms seen at the company's office in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)
An encased thin-cut, cultivated steak made by Israeli food tech startup Aleph Farms seen at the company's office in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

While cheeseburgers — made with dairy cheese and beef burgers — are unlikely to appear on kosher restaurant menus anytime soon, a relatively lenient ruling issued by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau has found that cultured meat could, in theory, be mixed with dairy.

Still, Lau’s ruling came with a significant caveat that would undermine the marketing strategies of the companies manufacturing lab-cultured meat: The burgers cannot be called meat, and cannot be made to look like meat or smell like meat.

The advent in the past decade or so of cultured meat, meaning meat grown in a lab rather than on a farm, has given rise to a number of questions for rabbis to answer — chiefly, can it be kosher and would it be considered meat as far as Jewish law, or halacha, was concerned. Over the years, a number of halachic authorities have weighed in one way or another.

This week, Lau joined the fray, issuing an 11-page ruling (Hebrew) at the request of a company that produces cultured beef. In November, Lau visited the company — Aleph Farms, which operates out of Rehovot in central Israel — and has spent the past two months investigating the various techniques and technologies used to produce the cultured meat and relevant religious texts in order to issue his ruling.

Lau determined that the cultured meat produced by Aleph Farms, though not necessarily all cultured meat, is indeed kosher and that it is “pareve,” designating a food that is neither meat (sometimes referred to as fleishig) nor dairy (milchig), such as vegetables or fish.

The company hailed Lau’s ruling, saying it hoped it would lead to full kosher certification and that it was also contacting Muslim, Hindu, and other religious authorities for their approvals as well.

“This ruling is meaningful not only for Aleph Farms as a company but also for the entire cultivated meat industry. It sets a foundation for an inclusive public discourse about the intersection of tradition and innovation in our society. At Aleph, we innovate in order to provide quality nutrition to anyone, anytime, anywhere in service of people and the planet, and that includes people with different culinary traditions,” said Didier Toubia, Co-Founder and CEO of Aleph Farms.

Lau’s ruling was based primarily on the fact that Aleph Farms, along with several other companies, uses a process in which its meat is cultivated from stem cells taken from fertilized embryos rather than from cells of muscle tissue.

Culturing meat from fertilized embryos, instead of animal flesh, solves a number of halachic problems, allowing them to be considered pareve, according to Lau. For one, embryos are not considered to be part of the mother, but are a separate entity, meaning that using them does not run afoul of the biblical prohibition against eating flesh taken from a living animal.

Illustrative image: stem cells (wildpixel; iStock by Getty Images)

According to Lau, embryonic stem cells are also not considered “meat” in Jewish law, as they are not really seen as food at all.

“Stem cells that are produced in this manner are a product that is not prohibited under any prohibition and are not considered meat. Therefore, so long as they are cultured and mixed with vegetable-based, kosher substances, they would be considered a kosher, vegetable product,” he wrote in his ruling.

However — and this is a big caveat — while the product may not technically be considered meat, there is a concept in Jewish law known as marit ayin, which forbids actions that appear to be prohibited even if they are in fact permitted. Eating what looks like a standard beef burger with dairy cheese would clearly appear to be a prohibited action.

Another consideration is a prohibition against performing actions that could accidentally lead someone to doing something forbidden out of habit. A person used to putting cheese on cultured meat could then start putting it on regular meat too — or so the thought goes.

Lau deals with both of these in his responsum, and they lead him to rule that the technical status of cultured meat as “pareve” could be overshadowed by some real-world conditions.

A cheeseburger. (Ron Dollete/Flickr)

In terms of marit ayin, Lau found that while someone could be more stringent on that front if they so desired, there is ample reason to believe it is not a significant factor, particularly as it relates to food being prepared in a private home rather than in a public space.

For decades, meat substitutes and alternatives have become commonplace around the world, meaning there is less of a chance that a person seeing someone eating what appears to be a non-kosher cheeseburger would immediately jump to the conclusion that they were committing a sin.

Lau is more receptive to the argument that someone could get so used to preparing cultured meat with dairy that it would lead to a “prohibited habit,” meaning that they would inadvertently pair cheese with a patty made of real beef.

In light of these two concerns — that treating cultured meat as “pareve” could lead to marit ayin and that it could lead to a “prohibited habit” — Lau ruled that if cultured meat is marketed as real meat rather than a meat alternative, and is prepared and packaged to look and smell like meat, then it should not be considered “pareve” and cannot be eaten with dairy products.

This indeed appears to be the case with Aleph Farms, whose primary products are cultured steaks that it says “deliver the same delicious taste, nutrition and sensory experience as the very best conventional steaks.”

In addition, Lau said that cultured meat should not be “marketed along with dairy products” as this could lead consumers to “take the mixing of meat and milk leniently and to disregard the prohibition.”

Finally, Lau stressed that this all applies only to Aleph Farms products, so long as they continue to be produced in the same way, and not to all cultured meat, which could use different techniques or ingredients.

So kosher cheeseburgers with cultured beef are still out of the question. For now, at least, kosher bacon burgers are out too. But the jury is still out on cultured dairy cheese.

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