When the world’s first lab-grown burger was introduced and taste-tested on Monday, the event seemed full of promise for environmentalists, animal lovers and vegetarians.
Others who had good reason to be excited are kosher consumers.
The burger was created by harvesting stem cells from a portion of cow shoulder muscle that were multiplied in petri dishes to form tiny strips of muscle fiber. About 20,000 of the strips were needed to create the five-ounce burger, which was financed partially by Google founder Sergey Brin and unveiled by Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) hailed the event as a “first step” toward humanely producing meat products. A University of Amsterdam study shows that lab-grown meat could significantly reduce the environmental impact of beef production.
For kosher-observant Jews, the “cultured” burgers could open the door to radical dietary changes — namely, the birth of the kosher cheeseburger. That’s because meat produced through this process could be considered parve – neither meat nor dairy — according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division.
Thus, under traditional Jewish law, the burger could be paired with dairy products, but several key conditions would have to be met to create kosher, parve cultured beef.
The tissue samples would have to come from an animal that had been slaughtered according to kosher rules, not from a biopsy from a live animal, Genack said. The principle underlying this theory is much like the status of gelatin in Jewish law: Though it is derived from an animal, it is not meat (the OU certifies some bovine-derived gelatin as parve). Genack noted another source for viewing cultured meat as parve: a 19th century Vilna-born scholar known as the Heshek Shlomo wrote that the meat of an animal conjured up in a magical incantation could be considered parve.
It may not be too much of a stretch, then, to apply the same logic to modern genetic wizardry. But kosher chefs aren’t heating up the parve griddles just yet.
The lab-born burger, which cost $325,000 and took two years to make, is still a long way from market viability, kosher or otherwise. If mass produced, it could still cost $30 per pound, researchers said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Jeff Nathan, the executive chef at Abigael’s on Broadway, a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. “Until it’s in my hands and I can touch it, smell it and taste it, I don’t believe it.”
Even if cultured beef became commonplace, consumers still might not be interested, said Elie Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Empire Kosher, the nation’s largest kosher poultry producer. “Parve burgers made of tofu and vegetables have been on the market for years,” Rosenfeld said. “But customers are still looking for the real deal, a product that’s wholesome and genuine.” Nevertheless, Nathan sounded an enthusiastic note about the potential for parve meat.
“I’m all for experimentation and science,” he said. “Let’s see what it tastes like.”