Friday, June 17, 2011

Hammerman on Ethics: Is Test Tube Meat Kosher?

Q - I recently heard reports about the creation of artificial meat, using with animal stem cells. To this point, it exists only in a Petri dish, but it's time to start asking the tough questions. As one who keeps kosher and who is a vegetarian, would this kind of meat would be kosher - and would that be true even for pork? And since no killing would be involved, could a vegetarian eat this meat with a clear conscience?

A- As they say at Citi Field, it’s time to “Meet the Meats.”

As a “Glatt” vegetarian (no fish or chicken), I’m torn. I even avoid many of the meat substitutes on the market because they have become so life like. But Soya is still Soya and this will be real meat, only grown and harvested from animal stem cells rather than being killed. The current discussion was prompted by a recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter, “Test Tube Burgers” and the author’s subsequent interview on public radio. I’ve collected dozens of links to recent articles on the topic for those who are interested.

It doesn’t take a vegan to see the strong moral argument for fake meat. As Specter writes, "There is something inherently creepy about [growing meat in labs], But there is something more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat. ... They live a horrible life, and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that is extremely exciting for a lot of people." Add to that the serious overcrowding of the planet, leading to environmental concerns like global warming and reduced arable land, this seems like a winning proposition.

But is it a kosher one?

Kashrut teaches us to respect all life and to be sensitive to suffering. An animal needs to be killed painlessly in order to be kosher. This process will be as painless as your basic biopsy, so it would seem as kosher as kosher can be. Not even PETA could complain if, say, fur coats were harvested this way. Some speak of having “free range” Petri dishes, but these are the people who believe a carrot screams when you pick it from the ground.

What about pork? While the fact that the pork stem cells would have to come from a pig, an argument could be made that the process of converting those cells into meat would be so complex, and the transformation from the original so complete, that it would be OK (much as Conservative rabbis have ruled for cheeses ). I disagree with that.

Kashrut is not simply about sensitizing ourselves to pain. It is also about living a life of discipline and holiness. Some foods are designated unkosher for what seem like purely arbitrary reasons. Part of being more humane – and more human – comes from pausing before we select and eat our food, to look at the label and know that not every creature is available to us to use for our instant gratification.
The same goes for sex partners, incidentally, which is why sexuality is covered in the same “holiness” section of Leviticus as kashrut. We can’t just shack up with anyone we see - unless you are governor of California, of course. Standards of who is an acceptable sex partner may change (as has happened in the liberal movements with homosexuality and long ago with bigamy), but the principle of setting boundaries remains, and will continue to even when we begin to grow entire human beings in a test tube.

Oh….we already do? Forgot.

There’s one other factor to consider. The rabbis called it Mar’it Ayin . There is a prohibition against doing things that look like they are prohibited. So eating a cheeseburger made out of Petri dish meat, or even Soya, could possibly fall under this category (though veggie burgers are now so prevalent they shouldn’t cause a problem).

Simple answer? It ‘aint so simple. Fortunately, we’ll have time to figure it out before this stuff hits the market. 06_17_11.pdf

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