It’s not Soylent Green, and it tastes like chicken!
Israel21c, a glossy online magazine started by Israeli-American technology execs to publish upbeat stories about Israel, recently shared news of two thrilling comestible start-ups.
SuperMeat (which I prefer to call SuperMeat! as in SuperMeat! The Musical!) is a cultured meat product (aka “in-vitro meat”) grown in a lab from chicken stem cells. The company’s research team is headed by Professor Yaakov Nahmias, an expert in tissue engineering and nanotechnology at Hebrew University and winner of an NIH career award. The company’s co-CEO, Koby Barak, is a vegan.
Israel, as you probably know, has a strong and growing vegan movement. Nahmias and Barak’s goal is to create a sustainable, cruelty-free chicken product, taken from a painless chicken biopsy, which we will be able to grow in a special nutrient rich soup (or slurry, a word I prefer because it is more science-y and shudder-inducing) in a special meat-producing machine in our home or restaurant. The company’s Indiegogo campaign met its funding goal in eight days, which is only three days longer than God took to create actual chicken. The Indiegogo page is delightful and polished, featuring a very funny actress starring in a video that impresses upon us all the need for bio-lab-chicken. On SuperMeat’s Facebook page, the company’s young staff sing an off-key song, “SuperMeat! Real meat without harming animals!” (I wrote my own song in my head, to the tune of PBS’s children’s show Super Why: “Who’s got the power, the power of meat/Who’s into labs for the answer we need? SuperMeat! SuperMeat!”)
Meanwhile, another Israeli startup, Flying SpArk, based in Ramat Gan, is working on an alternative protein made out of fruit fly larvae. (Stop throwing up and come back here!) With technology from The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Flying SpArk is part of The Kitchen, an incubator founded last year by the huge Israeli food producer The Strauss Group and the Israeli Ministry of Economy. The Kitchen invests in tech startups that “disrupt the global food system—making it more productive, more affordable, more sustainable and healthier.” (Technology companies, I beg you, please stop saying “disrupt” and “change agent.”) Every company in the incubator gets half a million dollars of seed money.
It’s clear that there’s a huge need for reform and innovation in the way we grow, consume, and ship food. Having an easily harvested and grown protein source could help ameliorate climate change and world hunger. It could be affordable and scalable as well as humane. It could eliminate shandes like the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse. And in-vitro meat has been in the works for a while: In 2013, Professor Mark Post in the Netherlands introduced the first lab-grown hamburger, which fooled some food critics into thinking it was straight from the grassiest of fields. Back then, the burger cost $350,000 to produce. Today, scientists can whip one up for 80 percent less, and they’re closing in on a $10 burger. So the future is coming quickly. But I know you’re asking: Will it be kosher?
SuperMeat! is confident that the answer is yes. A video on the company’s Facebook page quotes three Israeli rabbis saying that the product would not only be kosher, but also pareve. Their reasoning is based on the concept of “a new face,” panim chadashot. (Or “ponim chadoshos” if you want to say it in Brooklyn Ashkenozis.) The argument is that when a product goes through massive chemical transformations in its manufacturing process, it becomes a whole new thing. Ponim chadoshos was the rationale for the OK-ness of gelatin from cows that weren’t slaughtered in a kosher way; it was the logic behind the kosher-legit-ness of a genetically engineered tomato created with genetic material from a pig. (Fun fact: One of the first emails I ever wrote to someone I did not know, back in the early ‘90s, was to Ask the Rabbi, a web site that answered halakhic questions. I was very annoyed that the piggy tomato was deemed kosher; the rabbi on duty gently implied that I needed to chill out.)
However, not everyone is sanguine that test-tube chicken and fruit-fly-larvae tempeh will pass the kashrut test. One rabbi told JTA that haredi Orthodox will be far less enthused than the religious Zionist rabbis interviewed by SuperMeat! The former are more likely to factor in the future of the planet in their reasoning than the latter. Rabbi Doctor Mark Goldfeder, Senior Fellow at the Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion, also raises an eyebrow, metaphorically speaking. (Or maybe literally. I don’t know. I interviewed him over the phone.) “Even if you could get past technical Jewish law minutae [such as questions about the microscopic size of the baseline material used], I don’t think there will be widespread adoption of these products, because people will be concerned about the ‘maris ayin’ issue,” he said. (Maris ayin, or marit ayin in non-Ashkenozis Hebrew, means “appearance to the eye.” It means that things that might be interpreted as breaking the rules of Jewish law are banned, even if perhaps they don’t. So eating General Faux’s Chicken—thank you for that joke, Gabe Sanders—might still be forbidden because would think you were eating non-kosher food whether you were or not.)
I still fantasize about eating spaghetti carbonara (I’ve never even tasted it! It sounds really good!), made with pareve yet super-piggy bacon, or a lab-spawned kosher lobster roll, or prosciutto-wrapped melon made with a fine tissue of fruit-fly larvae protein that tastes like the finest Tuscan prosciutto. But I’m not holding my breath. Then again, by the time I started writing this story and the time I finished, SuperMeat! took in an additional $15K.