Team:NYC Wetware/Food Practices
~Best Human Practices Advance, Americas~
While scientific advances constantly generate new innovations, it is a major challenge for those who root themselves in time-honored moral traditions to think about how these new discoveries should be approached.
Vegans, vegetarians, and eaters of kosher all scrutinize the origins of their food before consuming it. If offered snacks don't conform to the guidelines they live by, they won't eat. The preparation of meat for these groups is particularly tricky, as it either involves careful ritual slaughter, in the case of kosher, or a prohibition against meat altogether, in the cases of veganism and vegetarianism.
One recent US patent describes six methods for producing meat in a laboratory. The possibility of growing meat in petri dishes has already garnered the attention of groups concerned with the ethical treatment of animals; it would mean that meat could be produced with virtually no opportunity for cruelty or mistreatment of animals. But one salient question has not yet been approached: Is such a product truly meat?
While such questions are in general not very useful – why should it matter what we call it? - when it comes to translating modern concepts into the language of ancient traditions, we are forced to clearly define the objects we are dealing with. As such, we have approached leading thinkers in the Jewish community whose expertise includes both the legal aspects of their respective traditions as well as the scientific knowledge necessary to comprehensively consider the issues.
The Legal Approach: The Search for PrecedentFirst of all, this discussion requires a quick overview of the general laws of kashrut (the kosher system):
• Among fish, birds, beasts, and insects, only a small group of species may be eaten. From fish, only those with fins and scales. From birds, only those not expressly prohibited by the Bible and from the remainder, birds that closely resemble in appearance and behavior those traditionally or historically eaten by Jews. From land animals, only ruminants with split hooves. And from insects, only four species of grasshopper.
• Kosher land animals must be ritually slaughtered.
• Another relevant kosher law is the prohibition against mixing dairy products with meat products.
As possible precedents for this issue there are two cases of food biotechnology that kosher authorities have ruled on in the past: gelatin and cheese. The OU, the world’s largest kosher supervision organization has this to say about the gelatin issue:
"Since “real” gelatin is derived from animal sources, it has been the focus of debate for nearly 100 years among leading rabbis. The question is: Can gelatin from non-kosher sources be permitted? Although cows that were not ritually slaughtered, and, of course, pigs, are certainly not kosher, some rabbis were lenient in allowing products that had very small amounts of gelatin added. This is because they felt that the gelatin extraction process caused the skins and bones to be sufficiently denatured, to the point that they are no longer considered food."
This is not the mainstream position. It has been rejected by every major kosher certifying agency.
An additional consideration in the gelatin debate was the fact that the gelatin was made from pork bones, a non-food item, and as such would only be subject to a rabbinic, not biblical, prohibition.
As this excerpt suggests, modern kosher gelatin is made only from kosher animals. Either fish or beef serve as the basis for kosher gelatin nowadays, with the further requirement that beef for gelatin is ritually slaughtered. The fascinating upshot of this discussion is that the finished gelatin product is not considered a meat product and is therefore allowed to be used with milk. This precedent does not bode well for the kashrut of in vitro meat product grown from the cells of non-kosher or unslaughtered animals.
The cheese-making enzyme complex, rennet, presents another landmark issue in the kosher regard for biotechnology. The Star-K a major American Orthodox kosher supervision agency describes rennet and its kosher-related traits as follows:
"Rennet is an extract of the fourth stomach of a calf, rich in rennin, an enzyme which is used to curdle the milk in the cheese making process. It makes no difference whether the rennet comes from a non-Kosher species, a non-ritually slaughtered or an improperly slaughtered Kosher species. If rennet comes from such an animal, the cheese made from this rennet is not Kosher."
Modern cheesemakers have overcome this kosher obstacle by resorting to harvesting rennet from transgenic bacteria, cloned to contain the bovine or ovine rennet-producing genes. The fact that the genetic material used and the final rennet product is dramatically unlike the original animal source is a major factor in the decision to consider the microbial, genetically engineered rennet completely kosher. One proviso is stipulated, however: that the processing equipment has not been used for non-kosher ingredients (or if it was, that it be cleaned under strict standards), and that the fermentation medium that feeds the bacteria be a kosher mixture. If a method for growing in vitro meat could be devised that sufficiently resembled that of producing microbial rennet, there might be a way to cultivate kosher in vitro meat of any kind. Seemingly, if the cell line was started using a sample from a kosher, ritually slaughtered animal, and grown in a kosher medium there would be no kosher-problem at all with the laboratory-grown meat. A question that would remain, however is whether, like gelatin, the lab-grown meat would be considered a non-meat product. This would represent a major change in the culinary options for Jews as there would now be a very real meat substitute that could be used with dairy. Behold, the kosher cheeseburger! The question of in vitro meat that is grown from non-kosher animal cells represents a legal middle ground between the two landmark cases of gelatin and rennet. On the one hand, like pork bones in gelatin, the parent cell line from which the culture is started is a direct and important ingredient in the final food product. This makes the granting of kosher-status to such a product very unlikely. Unlike gelatin, however, the final product is not merely a mixture of ingredients, but a mixture of ingredients that gives rise to a completely new entity. The transformation of culture medium into new cells is not analogous to the distribution of animal collagen throughout a gelatin medium because of the ongoing cell growth that gives rise to new materials.
The comparison to rennet is also two-sided. Like rennet, the final food product is the result of in vitro cell growth, a process totally divorced from the original animal. Unlike rennet, the final product resembles the meat of animal, and, furthermore, it is started with whole cells from the animal, not just genetic material. In order for in vitro meat from non-kosher animals to be successfully compared to rennet, a method for starting the cell line with kosher materials must be devised. One possible option would be the genetic manipulation of kosher cells to resemble pig cells. Using pig DNA or synthetic pig genes within a cow cell might be one way to overcome this obstacle.
The Moral Approach: The Underlying IssuesThe above discussion considers only the legal aspects of the kosher question, but kashrut also contains moral teachings that bear consideration when we ask about the permissibility of such a radically novel food item. First, we examine the issue of avoiding the need for ritual slaughter. The requirement to slaughter animals with a highly specific procedure serves to remind one of his own mortality and that all life lives and dies in respect to God. In committing the egotistic act of consuming an animal, the ritual brings to mind the humility of humanity. Losing this moral teaching will not affect the straightforward kashrut of the product, but it is important in considering whether such an advance would be a good or a bad idea.
The second moral teaching that might be lost is that of the distinction between kosher and non-kosher species. The Bible declares that distinguishing between the kosher and non-kosher species is fundamental to the notion of Jewish holiness and holy behaviors.
"I am the Lord your God, who have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate between the clean beasts and the unclean and between the unclean fowl and the clean; and you shall not make your souls detestable by beast or fowl or by anything wherewith the ground teemeth, which I separated for you to hold unclean. And you shall be holy unto Me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples."
This portion from Leviticus 20 explains that a key component to the Jewish notion of holiness and godliness is the separation between acceptable and unacceptable species. The extent to which this notion continues to be symbolized when a Jew can purchase meat of any species, provided it was grown in a petri dish, is questionable and ought to be questioned.
Past research within the academic Jewish community has dealt with a wide array of issues in biotechnology, but the area of in vitro meat growth is budding in every respect. Two leaders in the field, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, PhD and Rabbi J. David Bleich, PhD have both written many articles in the field, but are still researching the particular legal aspects of the in vitro meat question. For exploring the morality underlying the rules of kashrut I owe a great debt to the works of Michael Wyschogrod, BSS, PhD, Leon Kass, MD, PhD, and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, PhD. The articles and personal input of these authorities were invaluable in composing this review.
Main Points for Further Discussion• Is such a product kosher? Is it acceptable for a vegan or vegetarian?
• Would such a product considered meat in terms of kashrut? Could it be eaten with milk?
• If stem cells could be induced to differentiate as pig cells, could we produce kosher pork, or other non-kosher animals?
• Is the method of cell harvest important? How does the prohibition against eating from a live animal impact this issue?
• Is the relationship of the initial cell sample to the finished product analogous to that pork bones to gelatin?
• Is the relationship of the initial cell sample to the finished product analogous to that of animal rennet to the cheese it produces?