Chews to be choosy about being kosher

For those who see Jewish law as stuck in the ancient past, with nothing to say to us in the 21st century, here is something meaty to chew on. The next generation of faux meat is here, with yet another generation only a couple of years away, presenting us with issues, many of which are complex, that need to be addressed.

The current concern is a new type of veggie burger that looks, acts, and tastes like meat-based burgers. Specifically, a number of kosher eateries in our area now offer the Impossible Burger, a faux meat product that has been getting a great deal of media buzz of late — CNBC, BBC, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Wired, to name just a few — precisely because it looks like a burger, cooks like a burger, and even “bleeds” like a burger.

The Impossible Burger is produced by a Silicon Valley startup that claims —apparently with justification (“apparently,” because I have yet to try one) — that its products “deliver all the flavor, aroma and beefiness of meat from cows,” but is made entirely from plants.

The key ingredient is a virtually unpronounceable protein the company extracts from soy, called leghemoglobin. It sounds rather “bloody” (it is a close relative to myoglobin, which is found in the muscle tissue of most mammals), and it is what makes the Impossible Burger “bloody” because it is “atom-for-atom identical to the heme molecule found in meat,” the company says.

Impossible products are available only in restaurants for now and they are OU certified. Another company, Beyond Meat, which also is getting some notice, is available in certain stores (like Whole Foods), but is not yet kosher certified.

If, in fact, one is unable to distinguish between a real meat burger and these new plant-based creations (Business Insider rated it better-tasting than a burger served at a popular hamburger chain), there is the thorny issue of marit ayin, essentially performing an act that only appears to be prohibited. An onlooker, however, may get the idea that the actual prohibited act is now a permitted one. (“I guess cheeseburgers are okay now, since he’s eating one.”) Building a fence around this rule, the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 64b says, “Rav Yehuda quoted Rav as saying: ‘Wherever the Sages prohibited [an action] due to marit ha-ayin, even in private [where no one will see it,] it is prohibited.”

Not everyone agreed with Rav, however, as the discussion in Shabbat 64b notes. Based on its ruling, the Jerusalem Talmud also disagreed. (See the gemara portion of JT Chullin, Chapter 9.1.)

Obviously, eating an Impossible Burger in a restaurant is not eating it in private, so marit ayin would seem to apply, especially when eating a “cheeseburger.” Other factors come into play, however. For example, faux cheeseburgers made with traditional veggie burgers are no longer uncommon for kosher consumers. Then again, the Impossible Burger looks like real meat. Is it fair to assume its cheeseburger nevertheless falls into the acceptable category?

One possible answer was provided by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (see his Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim, page 243.2). Something that was once forbidden because of marit ayin but now has become commonplace no longer is subject to this rule. It is commonplace to use soy milk, or cashew milk, or non-dairy creamer during a meat meal, so why not add a piece of real cheese to a faux meat burger, even if it looks like real meat? Should it not be considered the same as faux milk?

What, however, would be the case if the “faux meat” product was not “faux” at all, but was “real meat,” albeit made in a laboratory?

“Lab meat” is a couple of years away, but it already also is getting lots of media buzz (from, among other sources, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, the Financial Times, Fortune, and Forbes). It also is subject to heavy lobbying by the meat industry, which considers these creations to be “egregiously labeled imitation products,” in the words of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. These products-to-be —including “chicken” meat from an Israeli company, SuperMeat, and “beef” products from Memphis Meats — are laced with halachic issues. The most important one is whether this “meat” is “real meat.”

Meat comes from an animal, not from a test tube. Memphis Meats, for one, promises “to bring delicious and healthy meat to your table by harvesting it from cells instead of animals. You can enjoy the meat you love today and feel good about how it’s made,” because no animal has to die to put juicy steaks on the table.

Says the SuperMeat website, “We have the technology to grow meat outside of the animal’s body, and achieve the same mouth-watering results, eliminating the need to grow animals in mass for meat harvesting.”

In other words, according to both companies, the beef, or veal, or lamb, or chicken they will produce will be real meat in every way except one: The meat will not come directly from the animal or bird, but from its cells.

Halachic issues abound. A major one is how to categorize a cell. The Torah prohibits consuming the flesh torn from a live animal (see especially Genesis 9:4 and Exodus 22:30). Are cells taken from a live animal flesh ripped from that animal? Even if it is so considered, can the same be said of its “descendants,” or do they lose their original identity and so cannot be seen as “torn flesh”?

Are these even valid questions, though? The Torah, after all, only prohibits what the naked eye can see, and that excludes cells. Then again, that rule apparently applies only to unintentional acts, such as drinking water on Pesach from a stream that may have had chametz thrown into it earlier. There is nothing unintentional about biting into a lab meat lamb chop.

Can a cell even be considered a limb? We drink cow’s milk and eat a chicken’s eggs. If they are not “limbs,” why should a microscopic cell be considered one?

Another question is whether lab meat meets the halachic test for real meat. If it does, (a) may meat that was not kosher-slaughtered (hard to do in a test tube) be considered kosher; and (b) is it still subject to the restrictions of not mixing meat with milk?

And then there is this question: If lab meat does not meet the meat test according to Jewish law, may products produced from a pig’s cells be consumed by kosher consumers?

One prominent Orthodox Israeli rabbi, Yuval Cherlow, says absolutely yes. If the “cell of a pig is used and its genetic material is utilized in the production of food,” he told the Times of Israel, “the cell in fact loses its original identity and therefore cannot be defined as forbidden for consumption. It wouldn’t even be meat, so you can consume it with dairy.” (Clearly, Cherlow also does not see marit ayin as being a problem.)

There is a rabbinic principle, however, that most authorities studying these issues (Orthodox and Conservative) invoke: What derives from a kosher source is kosher, and what derives from a non-kosher source is not kosher. (See Rashi’s comment to “forbidden for consumption by the rabbis” in BT Bechorot 24a.)

The Torah may have been given 3,500 years ago, as we will read on Shabbat two weeks from now, but its laws are for all times, all places, and all situations. It continues to be vital, vibrant, and highly relevant. Chew on that for a while.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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