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