Meat labs pur­sue a once-im­pos­si­ble goal


BERKE­LEY, Calif. — Rabbi Gavriel Price has thou­sands of years of Jewish re­li­gious law to draw on when he is on the job, de­ter­min­ing whether a new food item can get a kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from his or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Ortho­dox Union.

But all the rules about meat and milk, and the pro­hi­bi­tions on eat­ing pork and sci­atic nerves, are of limited use for Price’s lat­est as­sign­ment.

The rabbi is in charge of fig­ur­ing out how the Ortho­dox Union, the largest kosher cer­ti­fy­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion in the world, should deal with what is known as clean meat — meat that is grown in lab­o­ra­to­ries from an­i­mal cells. This brings him in touch with a pos­si­bil­ity for Jewish cui­sine that had pre­vi­ously seemed im­pos­si­ble: kosher ba­con.

Clean meat is still not avail­able in stores, but star­tups work­ing on it say it could be by next year. When it is, they want a kosher stamp on their prod­uct, which in­di­cates it ad­heres to qual­ity and prepa­ra­tion stan­dards and fol­lows a set of bib­li­cal laws. That brought Price, a tall, lanky fa­ther of eight, to Berke­ley re­cently, to meet with com­pa­nies in the busi­ness.

Clean meat, also known by names like cell-based agri­cul­ture, be­gins with cells taken from an an­i­mal, of­ten stem cells that are primed to grow. Once these cells are iso­lated, they are put into a so­lu­tion that mim­ics blood and en­cour­ages the cells to repli­cate.

This process is very new. The first ham­burger pro­duced in a lab was served with great fan­fare in 2013 and cost $325,000. But the num­ber of com­pa­nies com­pet­ing to cre­ate the first com­mer­cially avail­able prod­uct is grow­ing rapidly.

Price’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion touches on ques­tions that any­one might have when con­fronted with clean meat. What ex­actly is it? And should we want to eat it some­day?

His first stop was a lab op­er­ated by Mis­sion Barns, a startup with

six em­ploy­ees and mil­lions of dol­lars in fund­ing. It is grow­ing duck, chicken and pig meat in clear flasks, lined up in­side tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled in­cu­ba­tors.

He looked through a mi­cro­scope at a dish of long, pointy duck cells and pep­pered the sci­en­tists with ba­sic ques­tions about where the cells had come from, and what was in the red liq­uid that was help­ing the cells to repli­cate and grow.

“I’d like to spend more time, be­cause I think it’s an im­por­tant process to un­der­stand in a deep way, and there’s no prece­dent for it re­ally,” Price said af­ter the tour.

The is­sue he is ad­dress­ing is much more com­pli­cated than the kosher des­ig­na­tion of plant-based meat substitutes al­ready avail­able in gro­cery stores.

Per­haps the best-known com­pany of its kind, Im­pos­si­ble Foods, has cre­ated a burger that is made from all-vege­tar­ian in­gre­di­ents but tastes more like meat thanks to a chem­i­cal process in­volv­ing yeast and soy. As with most vege­tar­ian foods, these burg­ers have re­ceived a kosher stamp.

Mis­sion Barns, the startup in Berke­ley, is fo­cused on cre­at­ing an­i­mal fat, where much of the dis­tinc­tive fla­vor of meat re­sides. It re­cently mixed the fat with other in­gre­di­ents to cre­ate duck sausages that it served to in­vestors and em­ploy­ees. Cre­at­ing more struc­tured meat prod­ucts, such as a duck breast or a steak, is ex­pected to take much longer.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and an­i­mal wel­fare ac­tivists are pro­po­nents of the tech­nol­ogy be­cause it could pro­duce the fla­vor of ham­burg­ers and sausages with­out the green­house gases and an­i­mal suf­fer­ing of the fac­tory farm­ing sys­tem.

Jewish au­thor­i­ties hope the process will make kosher meat re­li­able and less ex­pen­sive.

“I’m ex­tremely ex­cited about it,” said Rabbi Me­nachem Ge­nack, who leads the kosher cer­ti­fy­ing di­vi­sion of the Ortho­dox Union. “The im­pact for us will be very pro­found, in terms of the eco­nom­ics of kosher meat.”

The U.S. Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion re­quested this year that U.S. au­thor­i­ties al­low the meat la­bel only on prod­ucts that come from slaugh­tered an­i­mals. While large meat com­pa­nies have pushed back against the cat­tle ranch­ers, in part be­cause they are de­vel­op­ing their own clean meat prod­ucts, it is un­clear if reg­u­la­tors will han­dle lab-grown meat with the same rules they use for tra­di­tional meat.

Jewish au­thor­i­ties have been study­ing this be­cause sev­eral syn­thetic meat star­tups are based in Is­rael.

A num­ber of Is­raeli rab­bis told one startup, Su­perMeat, that pre­vi­ous rul­ings in re­li­gious law might al­low clean meat to be cat­e­go­rized as pareve, a re­li­gious la­bel that is ap­plied to things that are kosher but not de­rived from an­i­mals.

A pareve la­bel would mean that ob­ser­vant Jews could eat it with dairy prod­ucts, in­clud­ing cheese, which can­not be eaten with tra­di­tional meat. In other words, a kosher cheese­burger might be pos­si­ble.

Ge­nack, Price’s boss at the Ortho­dox Union, ini­tially thought clean meat could be pareve, based on his be­lief that clean meat was cre­ated from an an­i­mal’s ge­netic code. But be­cause the process in­volves an an­i­mal cell, repli­cat­ing it­self mil­lions of times, he now be­lieves the prod­uct should be thought of as meat.

When Price vis­ited the Mis­sion Barns labs, he asked ques­tions spe­cific to kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. He wanted to be sure, for in­stance, that the pork cells grow­ing in one in­cu­ba­tor never come into con­tact with the duck cells in the in­cu­ba­tor next to it, and that the cen­trifuge where the meat cells are pro­cessed is cleaned thor­oughly be­tween pro­cess­ing.

He also wanted to know if the cells in the flasks changed as they repli­cated, to be sure that they do not morph into some­thing that no longer re­sem­bles the orig­i­nal an­i­mal cells.

“The iden­tity of a given cell, and en­sur­ing that its iden­tity is pre­served and ver­i­fi­able, would be cru­cial to our be­ing able to cer­tify a prod­uct,” the rabbi said.

The New York Times/JIM MCAULEY

Saam Shahrokhi pre­pares feed­stock for grow­ing cells at the lab of the startup Mis­sion Barns in Berke­ley, Calif. A rabbi at the world’s largest kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion agency is lead­ing an ef­fort to de­ter­mine if and how meat grown from an­i­mal cells can sat­isfy Jewish law.

The New York Times/JIM MCAULEY

Flasks con­tain cell cul­tures at the lab of the startup Mis­sion Barns in Berke­ley, Calif.

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