Sep 18, 2023 - Economy

Lab-grown meat can be halal and kosher

Illustration of a petri dish full of minced meat with a "halal" and "kosher" flag planted in the meat.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Islamic scholars consulted by a leading producer of cultivated meat say that the newfangled protein — which is grown from animal cells and doesn't require animals to be slaughtered — can be halal, or permissible under Muslim law.

  • And the Jewish Orthodox Union this month certified a strain of lab-grown chicken as kosher for the first time, "marking a significant step forward for the food technology's acceptance under Jewish dietary law," as the Times of Israel put it.

Why it matters: For cultivated meat to go mainstream the way its backers hope, it'll need to be accepted by people who abide by a variety of dietary laws.

  • The halal ruling "opens up cultivated meat to 2 billion more people across the world," Josh Tetrick, the CEO of Good Meat, tells Axios.
  • In the United States alone, there are 12 million kosher consumers, and 35 million non-Jewish consumers of kosher products, according to Star-K, a leading kosher certifying authority.

Driving the news: Good Meat, which recently began selling its cultivated chicken in the U.S., solicited a Shariah opinion from "a trio of well-respected scholars in Saudi Arabia" and got a qualified thumbs-up, the company said.

  • To be halal, the cell line of the meat has to come from an animal that is permissible for Muslims to eat, like a chicken or cow.
  • The animal behind the cell line must be slaughtered according to Islamic law.
  • The nutrients fed to the animal cells as they're cultivated must not include any substances Muslims are forbidden to consume, such as spilled blood, alcohol or materials extracted from pigs.

This ruling isn't the final word, but Tetrick called it a "landmark opinion" and said the Shariah scholars behind it are highly influential.

  • "We expect it to have a really important impact on how other countries think about it," and how halal certifying bodies view his product and others.

Kosher, too: Separately, on Sept. 6, the certifying authority Orthodox Union Kosher recognized as kosher the poultry products from SuperMeat, an Israeli startup — noting that they met "the most stringent qualifications for kosher supervision," the Times of Israel said.

  • "It's a big deal, because just in terms of the technology itself, not just in poultry but in meat, it may have real significance for the future," Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, was quoted in the Times as saying.

Yes, but: As with so many matters of religious doctrine, not all authorities agree.

  • The American Halal Foundation says in an "authoritative guide" to cultivated meat that "most current products that exist would not be considered halal due to the fact that the cell lines are taken from alive animals" rather than ones slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law.
  • And some rabbis agree that cultivated meat isn't kosher if it's grown from the cells of living animals.

The other side: Good Meat says that the central issue — whether an animal is slaughtered through halal standards — isn't hard to resolve.

  • "Our current cell line does not meet that guidance, but future cell lines will, which is why this ruling is so important," a company spokesman said by email.
  • "It's an open question whether an animal can be halal but not slaughtered," he added. "This is something we'd need clarification on moving forward."

Between the lines: With hundreds of startups getting into the cultivated meat business — each with its own practices and methods — each may have to gain halal and kosher certification individually.

Where it stands: Only two companies — Good Meat and Upside Foods — have gotten regulatory approval to sell their cultivated meat in the U.S.

  • The first product from both firms is cultivated chicken, which is being sold in tiny quantities at high-end restaurants. (And, in the case of Good Meat, at a market in Singapore.)
  • To make cultivated meat, animal cells are placed in a large steel vessel called a bioreactor — or "cultivator" — and fed for at least two weeks with a variety of nutrients, which help the cells grow and differentiate, similarly to how they would in a living animal.
  • There are still big questions over how and when the industry is going to scale up and produce this meat in mass-market quantities.

Zoom in: Upside Foods doesn't seem inclined to get into the debate over religious certification.

  • "You are asking a question of Talmudic proportions," a spokeswoman responded by email when asked if cultivated meat is halal or kosher. "Upside's facilities are not currently under any kosher or halal supervision."
  • Upside just announced that it's building its first commercial-scale production plant, outside Chicago.

What's next: There are myriad obstacles for the nascent cultivated meat business — including ramping up production and spreading the word that it's different from plant-based meat — but acceptance by religious authorities will help clear some major hurdles.

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