It’s not a bird — it’s SuperMeat

It’s not a bird — it’s SuperMeat

Israeli startup aims to grow meat without the animal

Chickens would be spared with a bioengineering method being developed by the Israeli food tech startup SuperMeat. (Wikimedia Commons)
Chickens would be spared with a bioengineering method being developed by the Israeli food tech startup SuperMeat. (Wikimedia Commons)

The future of vat-grown, animal-free meat is getting closer — and the discussion of whether it’s kosher is starting in earnest.

The founders of an Israeli food tech startup have enlisted Orthodox rabbinic support for their proposition that “cultured meat,” bioengineered from animal cells, will be not only tasty and cruelty-free, but also parve.

SuperMeat, which began an online crowdfunding campaign last week, has the tagline, “Real meat, without harming animals.”

It imagines a chicken breast without the chicken, developed in a machine, grown from cells taken from a living bird and cultured in a nutrient-rich stock.

The company has won notice in Israel with slick marketing, celebrity endorsements, and news coverage. But the increased awareness has raised tough questions for two highly principled groups of Israeli eaters: kashrut observers and vegans.

SuperMeat’s co-founder and co-CEO, Koby Barak, a longtime vegan and animal rights activist, said his company’s cultured meat will be both kosher and vegan-friendly, and he has the supporters to prove it.

“I have spoken to about 10 rabbis and I don’t see any problem,” Barak said. “It will be kosher. The vast majority of the vegan-vegetarian movement is very supportive, and we thank them for really supporting us.”

Among rabbis and vegan activists, though, the debate over exactly what to make of SuperMeat, and cultured meat in general, is far from resolved.

SuperMeat is not the first cultured meat company, but it is the first to focus on chicken. Others have already produced beef, and at least one is working on pork. Mark Post, who made headlines with the first cultured hamburger in 2013, said that he hopes to be the first to get his product, recently branded Mosa Meat, to market, in four to five years.

What SuperMeat thinks makes it unique is its patented technology, which is being developed by a company co-founder and its head of research, Yaakov Nahmias, a biomedical engineer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Production is to work like this: Cells will be taken from a chicken, causing it no harm. The cells will be put into a machine that simulates the bird’s biology, allowing them to self-assemble into meat.

Barak said that the process could revolutionize how the world eats, striking a major blow against environmental degradation, animal suffering, and global health pandemics. Other meats could be made using more or less the same process, he said.

The Indiegogo fundraising campaign has nearly raised its $100,000 goal, which Barak hopes will demonstrate consumer interest to investors, from whom it will need to raise millions more.

Science aside, SuperMeat certainly stands out for its marketing. Between the videos of actors and models on the company’s Facebook page are taped testimonials by charedi Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis.

Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba in the West Bank, and Yuval Cherlow, a Ranaana rabbi who helped found the religious Zionist rabbinical group Tzohar, argue on video that SuperMeat will be parve. They say animal cells don’t count as meat, and that anyway SuperMeat’s process transforms the cells into an entirely new substance. Based on similar logic, they say, gelatin derived from pigs is kosher. That’s a position with which many other Orthodox rabbis disagree.

“Here, from the beginning it’s not considered meat because it’s a microscopic thing. … And even if it were really meat, because it changed its form, a ‘new face has arrived here’ and it’s not considered meat, and it’s clearly parve,” said Lior, using a Talmudic expression meaning that something that had previously been forbidden is no longer forbidden because circumstances have changed so entirely.

On the other hand, Yisrael Rosen, head of the Zomet Institute, which works to reconcile Orthodox Jewish law and technology, says that SuperMeat is meat, and suggests it will need rabbinic supervision.

Cherlow said that he expects charedi Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis to be divided on this issue. He said that’s partly because religious Zionists are willing to consider extralegal factors, like the welfare of the planet, more than charedi Orthodox rabbis would. Israel’s chief rabbinate will err on the side of the charedim, Cherlow predicted.

“The rabbinate is trying to include everyone, so therefore it will go to the more extreme opinions,” he said. “But I think when there is a big need, I think most of the rabbis will say you should” accept the more lenient position.

Asked if cultured pork would be kosher, Cherlow said: “Emotionally it’s more difficult. But logically it’s the same answer.”

The New York-based Orthodox Union has yet to take a position on cultured meat. (The group doesn’t recognize pig gelatin as kosher.) But Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the chief operating officer of the OU’s kashrut department, suggested that the product sounded a lot like meat. He also confirmed that the OU’s position would be based solely on Jewish law.

“We of course are very concerned about the environment, but our first consideration is always halachah,” he said.

SuperMeat’s concerns are more in line with those of vegans and animal activists. After all, much of the company’s staff comes from that world. Like Barak, SuperMeat co-founder and co-CEO Ido Savir has been a vegan and animal rights activist for nearly two decades. Both men left jobs in Israel’s high-tech industry to join the company and focus full time on the cause of cultured meat.

Nahmias, the scientific brain behind SuperMeat and a rare omnivore on staff, said that his work is motivated by his love of schnitzel, an Israeli staple that he said is becoming increasingly unsafe to eat.

“As a kid, I was eating what my mother and my grandmother were cooking. And I want my kids to be able to eat the same kind of schnitzel,” he said. “That’s the reason that I do this.”

JTA Wire Service

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