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Test-Tube Burgers: Holy Cow?

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by Rachel E. Gross

In Genesis, God granted humans dominion over animals. In modern times, that dominion has spawned one of the planet’s biggest threats: a livestock industry that spews greenhouse gases, guzzles resources and renders the lives of billions of animals brutish and short. Last August, vexed by the problem, a Dutch physiologist named Mark Post came up with a solution: a burger no cow had to die for. He called it the “test-tube burger.”

While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, the “burger,” Post says, is pure biology. First, he extracted stem cells from a living cow. Then, he bathed the cells in a nutrient broth and jolted them with electricity, until they multiplied by the billions to form a wall of edible muscle. Post compares the process to cutting off a salamander’s tail and letting it grow back. “It’s letting cells do outside the body what they would otherwise have done inside the body,” he says. 

The result is “biochemically indistinguishable” from cow flesh, he says. “The only difference is, we didn’t have to slaughter the cow.” 

Post is not the first to imagine meat divorced from an animal. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote, “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing, by growing these parts separately in a suitable medium.” Churchill was close: In the 1990s, science caught up to his vision in the form of bioengineered organs grown from undifferentiated stem cells. By 2000, NASA had shown it was possible to grow fish filets from chunks of fish to feed astronauts on long space flights. 

Yet Post was the first to bioengineer meat that could, conceivably, be widely eaten. This past August, he put his burger to the test at a televised tasting in London, where it was revealed that Google co-founder Sergey Brin had bankrolled the project. Fried in butter and mixed with breadcrumbs, the burger was served up to food journalists alongside tomato, lettuce and a sesame seed bun. The verdict? “This is meat to me,” one declared. 

The event created quite a buzz. Cultured meat, as it is called, captured the imaginations of techies, environmentalists and animal rights groups—including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which, in 2008, offered $1 million to the first person to develop and market a test-tube chicken. In May, a paper in the journal Trends in Biotechnology cited statistics that test-tube meat could reduce land use, water use and greenhouse gas emissions by more than 95 percent. “Cultured meat,” the authors wrote, “has great moral promise.”

 Of course, not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of eating meat grown in a petri dish. A 2014 Pew survey found that 80 percent of Americans would be unwilling to try it, and critics caution that test-tube meat needs more testing. The “Frankenburger” might come with hidden health risks, they say, as no country has yet approved it for human consumption. Moreover, at almost $30 per pound, it is prohibitively expensive.

But proponents predict it will turn up on supermarket shelves, eventually. Post hopes to commercialize the burger in five to seven years, while others, including New York-based bioprinting company Modern Meadow, are aiming for sooner. In anticipation, leaders from various religions have already begun investigating whether or not test-tube meat will fit into their dietary laws. 

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For rabbis, the first question is: Is it kosher? Certainly, there are many Jewish legal hurdles test-tube meat would have to clear before a definitive answer could be reached. A central point of debate is the origin of the cells, which some say would have to come from a kosher—that is, cloven-hoofed, cud-chewing—animal. “As a general principle, something derived from a non-kosher animal is not kosher,” says Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division.

Others, such as Rabbi Carl Feit, chair of the biology department at Yeshiva University, say cultured meat could still be kosher even if the donor animal isn’t. Feit points to the Jewish legal principle of nullification, which states that a trace amount of a forbidden substance can be fully absorbed into an acceptable one without rendering the second treif, or forbidden. If, for example, a piece of meat falls into a glass of milk, the milk is still considered kosher as long as the meat is not more than one-sixtieth of the mixture. 

But for this principle to apply to bioengineered meat, it would have to be shown that cow cells are truly transformed by growing into billions of exact replicas. “Do they ever lose their identity as cow cells?” asks Feit. “At the moment, I’m not convinced they do.”

The next step for rabbis is to determine whether the futuristic foodstuff is meat, or something new entirely. Talmudic scholar David Lichtenstein argues the former. Since it has all the physical properties of meat, the test-tube burger “should be assigned all the halachic [Jewish legal] properties of ordinary meat, as well,” he writes in the book Headline: Halachic Debate of Current Issues. The OU’s Genack disagrees. He says bioengineered beef is more like milk, which Jewish law considers a derivative of meat, but not itself meat. “There’s no principle that says that something that comes out of meat is meat,” he says. Similarly, when science uses cells to make a copy, the result is one step removed from the original substance. Thus Genack concludes that, providing the animal is kosher and properly slaughtered, test-tube meat should be pareve—neither meat nor dairy. This logic opens up the possibility of something magical: a kosher cheeseburger.

Beyond the technicality of test-tube meat’s kosher status are more lofty ethical questions, which have spurred lively debate not only in the Orthodox world but Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal circles. Rabbi Moshe Tendler, former chair of the bioethical commission of the Rabbinical Council of America, says the potential new food falls under the Jewish religious mandate to consider innovations that could feed the hungry and prevent animals from being brutally killed. “God gave us a half-finished world and left us to investigate the laws of nature,” he says. “When something comes up that could be of benefit to mankind, it becomes a divine responsibility to do so.” 

Speaking of the almighty, could making meat from cells be considered “playing God”—the culinary equivalent of Jurassic Park? Organic food certifier Rabbi Reuven Flamer thinks it could be. “The idea of mastering life, that which God creates for us in a harmony between foodstuff and the human body, is a slippery slope,” he says. “We don’t know what we’re tinkering with when we make this.”

Judaism is not the only religion grappling with the ramifications of test-tube meat. Playing God may also be a concern for some Muslims, for whom fitra, or God-given naturalness, is a primary value, says Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Making meat in a lab could be interpreted as humans tampering with nature, thus violating fitra. On the other hand, since the purpose of test-tube meat is to preserve the environment—by preventing environmental degradation and allowing more animals to live—it could also be seen as supporting the mandate of naturalness, Moosa says. 

From a Hindu perspective, using an animal’s cells to make meat constitutes an example of human arrogance, says Shaunaka Rishi Das, a Hindu priest and director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. Rishi Das explains that Hindus—most of whom abstain from meat—do not subscribe to the western principle of dominion over non-human beings. “It’s an entirely different philosophical starting point,” he says. “It’s not: I am the master of you. It is: I am your servant. I am the servant of nature. I am the servant of animals.” Even if the animal is not killed, he says, humans are still asserting that its cells are theirs to use. 

Plus, he points out, the most economical way to feed the world is not with meat but with a vegetarian diet. “It’s not about my need to survive; it’s about my taste buds,” he says.

While they may not eat meat themselves, many Jewish vegetarians say that the bioengineered version could serve as a utilitarian compromise. “Our belief is that anything which will help promote Jewish values of compassion toward animals and preservation of the environment would be a good thing,” says Noam Mohr, vice president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. “This may be a way of keeping Jewish values for people who still lust for meat.” And many contemporary Jewish spiritual leaders—perhaps following in the footsteps of Abraham Isaac Kook, pre-state Israel’s chief rabbi and a famous vegetarian—are intrigued. “If we had a way to satisfy the physical needs of those who need to eat meat, but could do it in a way that never causes an animal any pain, then certainly that would be a huge spiritual step for Judaism in the spirit of Rabbi Kook,” says Feit, who advocates pursuing the burger with “cautious optimism.” 

Of course, it will take more than optimism to overcome millennia of tradition. The Jewish culture still relies heavily on meat. In fact, the Talmud says: “There is no joy without meat and wine.” It remains to be seen whether Jews will accept what Flamer calls “ersatz flesh” in their brisket and chicken soup. “What blessing would one make over vat-grown meat?” wonders Renewal Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. “Some liturgical creativity might be required.”—Rachel E. Gross

3 comments

  1. I lost faith in the rabbis when GMOs were declared kosher. dding petridishburgers to that list would only drive the most sane remnant away from Judaism.

  2. I believe that this discussion forgets the problem and addresses ancillary aspects of using a “new foodstuff.” People consume meat. As the population of the world increases, the ability to produce meat will become more difficult for many reasons, space, feeding and growth, along with the problems of animal disease which grow with the problem of putting more animals in a given space. While there are many religions that place dietary rules on their adherents, most people in the world are not bound by these rules, and it is for them that these meat substitutes should be developed. At any rate, with this majority of people gaining a new source of substitute meat, it will make natural meat more available to those who follow religiously-inspired dietary restrictions.

  3. “In modern times, that dominion has spawned one of the planet’s biggest threats: a livestock industry that spews greenhouse gases, guzzles resources and renders the lives of billions of animals brutish and short.”

    Ms. Gross, are you sure you don’t want to think about that lede a little bit more?

    Iran nearly has the atomic bomb. Russia has many more of them than we do, and just invaded the Ukraine. An asteroid big enough to kill us all just came closer than our artificial satellites. We narrowly went between two solar flares either of which would have evaporated the earth’s atmosphere.

    All of these were in the papers.

    There are lots of others. Terrorists are after bioweapons, and they’re cheap. There’s an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola fever. The Islamic State, allegedly not Islamic, cuts journalists’ heads off, which maybe is a bad thing. I could go on an on. And that’s not even the threats that aren’t immediately obvious.

    Why don’t you try that lede again?

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