Is it really kosher? Is it really chicken?

Is it really kosher? Is it really chicken?

OU Kosher’s Menachem Genack talks about new ways to grow chicken from cells

Israeli chef Shachar Yogev serves a burger made with “cultured chicken” meat at the Chicken, SuperMeat’s restaurant in an Israeli town, Ness Ziona, on June 18, 2021. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli chef Shachar Yogev serves a burger made with “cultured chicken” meat at the Chicken, SuperMeat’s restaurant in an Israeli town, Ness Ziona, on June 18, 2021. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Israeli startup SuperMeat announced that OU Kosher, the kosher certification division of the Orthodox Union, determined that SuperMeat’s poultry cell line development process has broad acceptance as the basis for a kosher meat product.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, who leads Englewood’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah and is the CEO of OU Kosher, said that the OU is very interested in this new process. The product is not available yet — the company is in the process of seeking regulatory approval in the United States and in Israel — so nothing has been actually certified yet, but the process has been approved on a conceptual basis. That means that OU Kosher expects to certify cultivated chicken created using this process.

The goal was to find a cultured meat product that is universally accepted as kosher, Rabbi Genack said. Because this is a new technology, a number of leading rabbis were involved in the in-depth examination of SuperMeat’s process and the ultimate determination that the cultivated chicken derived from the process could be considered kosher.

Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon is the rabbi of the Gush Etzion Regional Council and the rosh yeshiva — the dean — of the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also the founder and chairman of the Mada Toratecha — Science and Torah — Institute. According to its website, the institute “addresses the interface between Jewish life and the cutting-edge technologies and scientific research that impact our lives today and in the coming decades.” Rav Rimon has a relationship with SuperMeat and initiated OU Kosher’s examination of the process.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University and a halakhic adviser for OU Kosher, and Rabbi Asher Weiss, a leading halakhic judge in Israel, also visited the SuperMeat facility and were involved in the in-depth examination of the facility and the process used to create the cell line. Each of the three rabbis is a well-regarded posek — a contemporary arbiter of Jewish law.

“This is a very contemporary issue, and they want to make sure that they have approval,” Rabbi Genack said.

Hanna Bitner heads cell line development at SuperMeat. “This is a groundbreaking intersection between time-honored religious dietary traditions and the vanguard of food technology,” Ms. Bitner wrote in an email interview.

Rabbi Menachem Genack

In order for meat or poultry to be kosher, the animal has to be slaughtered in a particular way, in a process called shechita. There are different rabbinic opinions regarding whether a cell line created from cells taken from a live animal can be considered kosher, Rabbi Genack said. The OU’s position is that such a cell line cannot be considered kosher, and that stem cells would have to be extracted from an animal that has been slaughtered in the required manner in order for the end product to be considered kosher.

The advantage of SuperMeat’s process is that the stem cells are extracted not from chickens but instead from fertilized eggs. “Our unique technology enables meat to be grown from embryonic stem cells at a very early stage in the development of the embryo,” Ms. Bitner wrote.  “According to halacha (Jewish law), the embryo is not yet an animal at that stage, so cells collected from it can be treated as kosher without slaughter.”

It’s important that the stem cells be extracted during the first few days after the egg is laid, Rabbi Genack explained. The cells have to be extracted before blood spots appear in order for the end product — the cultivated chicken — to be kosher.

The OU invested significant time and resources in reviewing SuperMeat’s process because of the importance of the cultivated meat industry, Rabbi Genack continued. Cattle is a significant source of carbon methane in the environment, and cultivated meat enables meat consumption without the environmental impact. Cultured meat also has economic advantages, particularly in the kosher market.

“When we shecht an animal” — when it is slaughtered in the way that Jewish law mandates — “we use only approximately 35% or 40% of the meat because there are parts of an animal” — even a kosher, shechted animal — “that are not kosher,” Rabbi Genack said. Although the non-kosher parts of the animal do not amount to such a high percentage of the meat, because extracting those parts is time-consuming and labor-intensive, certain areas of the animal, including the hind quarters, generally are sold as non-kosher. All portions of cultivated meat, on the other hand, would be kosher, he said, “so the economics for the kosher consumer could be significant.”

While the process that was just approved on a conceptual basis is used to create cultivated poultry, not red meat, the OU is hoping to certify it too in the future. The OU’s investigation of SuperMeat’s process, combined with the work of Rav Rimon, Rabbi Schachter, and Rabbi Weiss, each considered a major posek by different segments of the Orthodox community, and the approval of SuperMeat’s process by all the rabbis involved, demonstrates that “in the arena of cultured meat, there can be a process that can be universally accepted as kosher.”

OU Kosher now is discussing the possibility of producing kosher cultivated meat with a number of companies, Rabbi Genack said. The OU would require that the stem cells used to grow the meat be extracted from an animal that has been shechted. The hope is that the consensus reached about the kosher status of SuperMeat’s poultry line will encourage companies to try to create a red meat product that is similarly broadly accepted as kosher, and in order to gain that broad acceptance, to work on creating a process that uses stem cells extracted from a shechted animal, rather than a live one, at least for the kosher market.

Will this new product be considered meat for purposes of Jewish law? There are different rabbinic opinions, Rabbi Genack said. Some poskim think that the cultivated chicken expected to be produced using SuperMeat’s newly approved method, as well as cultivated red meat, should be considered as fleishig — as meat — because it is genetically identical to conventionally produced meat.

Others feel it could theoretically be treated as parve —  neither meat nor dairy — because, although it is derived from an animal, it is not the meat of an animal. But that opinion is not likely to have a practical effect on how a cultivated product is served or eaten, because even those poskim who would treat the product as parve on a theoretical level would treat it as meat for most practical purposes. That’s because it looks like meat and tastes like meat, and therefore easily could be confused with meat.

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