The gilt-edged hamburger: Is it kosher?


The world’s first laboratory grown beef was recently produced at a cost of some £215,000, ground into a single hamburger and consumed in London by “food experts” in front of television cameras.

The beef was grown from the stem cells of a dead cow. To see the full BBC report, click on the image below. 

Apart from the many fascinating general questions that remain to be answered about this process, there are of course specifically Jewish ones too. This post does not set out to answer any of them definitively, but merely to ask some of them!


First a bit about the science

The normal way beef is grown is as the result of a bull and cow mating. The sperm and egg fuse to form a single cell, which then divides and subdivides until there are millions of identical cells. At a certain point the individual cells start “specialising”, some turn into blood cells, others into muscle cells, fat cells, bone cells, brain cells, and so on.

When we want a steak, we slaughter a cow, salt the meat in the prescribed traditional way to remove the visible blood (though of course many blood cells remain in the muscle tissue),  and cook it.

In this case a microscopic sample of one – or a few – stem cells (the “unspecialised cells”) were taken and put under conditions that caused them to multiply in a petri dish, and transform from stem cells into muscle cells. So the tissue only became tissue, and indeed only became visible to the naked eye, in the petri dish!

According to the scientists involved in the new process, growing cow tissue in a lab will eventually be cheaper and greener than farming beef.

So…  would it be kosher? Let’s consider some of the questions that might be involved.

“Ever min hachai” (lit. limb of a live animal)

We are prohibited to eat anything from a live animal. Although the Torah uses the word for limb, the rabbis interpret it as meaning anything, and say that milk would have been prohibited on this basis were it not a special exception due to being mentioned explicitly in the Torah as food. But  if stem cells were taken from a live animal, would they be included in this prohibition? Or being microscopic, would they be considered insignificant?

Certainly, when we drink a glass or milk, there are many more microscopic cells from the live cow contained in it than are required to generate a lab burger! No-one is suggesting that it is forbidden to drink the milk because of their presence.

“Davar Hama’amid” (catalyst)

Animal rennet added in very small amounts to cheese renders it non-kosher, even though the amount is less than 1/60th. That is because the guideline of 1/60th applies only to cases where we are uncertain whether the ingredient affects the taste. When it is a catalyst that is essential to the product its presence is significant even in a minute amount.

Would this apply to microscopic stem cells?

Requirement for kosher slaughter

If – as in the case of the recently publicised hamburger – the cells were taken from a dead animal, would Jewish law require that animal to have been slaughtered by shechita? After all we are forbidden from eating a kosher animal that died naturally, or was killed other than by shechita, or that was sick before being slaughtered.

Or would the few cells concerned not be considered “food” at all?

Meaty or Parev?

If the cells were considered so insignificant that they could be taken from a live or dead animal without requiring that it be slaughtered, would the resultant meat be considered to be “meat” – or would it be permissible to eat it with milk?

Bean sprouts that were sprouted on blotting paper in a plastic container are not considered the same as the beans from which they were grown, and the blessing for eating them is “Shehakol” rather than “Adama”. So perhaps stem cells that multiply and develop into muscle cells should also be considered entirely new, and therefore not considered part of the original animal?

Would this allow kosher cheeseburgers?

As a matter of interest at least one rabbinical authority has suggested that this would be the case. The article is in Hebrew, here.

Kosher bacon?

If the above were accepted, what about stem cells extracted from a pig?

The Talmud does state that for every non-kosher food there is a kosher option with the same flavour, so that observing kashrut need not involve missing any of the tastes that God created. The rabbis specifically mention a certain fish said to taste similar to bacon, but I believe its identity is not known today. Of course we are familiar with kosher “grill” flavoured crisps, where “grill” is said to be a euphemism for bacon, and indeed one can today buy kosher certified, artificially flavoured “bacon bits” to pep up a salad or omelette, but I would imagine lab. grown pork (if permitted) would be much closer to the real thing.

Kosher blood?

The Torah prohibits us from eating blood, we therefore salt (or roast) meat to remove the blood, but once this has been done there is no problem with enjoying a juicy medium-rare steak that oozes red liquid when cut into. This liquid – though largely composed of blood cells, is not  considered the “blood” that the Torah prohibited (if it were, eating meat would be impossible).

It was mentioned in the article almost as an aside that the tissue that grew in the lab. was white and they artificially coloured it. Presumably this was due to the absence of blood cells. If it were decided that to produce more authentic-tasting beef, there was a need for fat and blood cells in addition to the tissue cells, would that present a problem?

A solution to a contemporary challenge?

There is a principle that God often sends solutions in advance of problems. Could this process be the solution to the increasing hostility of many nations towards shechitah (kosher slaughter)?


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