Meet the meat that an Israeli startup is creating in a lab

The founders of an Israeli food tech startup want you to enjoy your meat without the guilt — in fact, without the animal.

SuperMeat, which launched in December and recently began an online crowdfunding campaign, is developing a method for bioengineering “cultured meat” from animal cells. Its tagline: “Real meat, without harming animals.”

Imagine a chicken breast without the chicken, developed in a machine from cells taken from a living bird and cultured in a nutrient-rich stock.

The company has won notice in Israel with slick marketing, celebrity endorsements and news coverage. But the increased awareness has raised tough questions for two highly principled groups of Israeli eaters: Kashrut observers and vegans.

Koby Barak, co-founder and co-CEO of SuperMeat, is himself a longtime vegan and animal rights activist. He said his company’s cultured meat will be both kosher and vegan-friendly, and he has the supporters to prove it.

“I have spoken to about 10 rabbis and I don’t see any problem. It will be kosher,” he said. “The vast majority of the vegan-vegetarian movement is very supportive, and we thank them for really supporting us.”

Among rabbis and vegan activists, though, the debate over exactly what to make of SuperMeat, and cultured meat in general, is far from resolved.

SuperMeat is not the first cultured meat company, but it is the first to focus on chicken. Others have already produced beef , including Mark Post, who made headlines with the first cultured hamburger in 2013, and at least one is working on pork. Closer to home, San Leandro-based New Wave Foods is developing artificial shrimp in its lab; it was served at a L’Chaim Foods kosher dinner in March in San Francisco, introduced as “shr!mp” on the menu.

What SuperMeat thinks makes it unique is its patented technology, which is being developed by a company co-founder and its head of research, Yaakov Nahmias, a biomedical engineer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Marketing materials promise no animals will be hurt in the production of SuperMeat.

Production is to work like this: Cells will be harmlessly taken from a chicken and put into a machine that simulates the bird’s biology, which will allow the cells to self-assemble into meat.

Barak said the process could revolutionize how the world eats, striking a major blow against environmental degradation, animal suffering and global health pandemics. Other meats could be made using more or less the same process, he said.

The online fundraising goal is $100,000, which Barak hopes will demonstrate consumer interest to investors; overall, millions of dollars will need to be raised, Barak said.

SuperMeat’s marketing campaign includes videos of actors and models on Facebook page, along with taped testimonials by haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis.

Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba in the West Bank, and Yuval Cherlow, a Ra’anana rabbi who helped found the religious Zionist rabbinical group Tzohar, say on video that SuperMeat will be parve. They say animal cells don’t count as meat, but even they did, SuperMeat’s process transforms the cells into an entirely new substance. Based on similar logic, they say, gelatin derived from pigs is kosher — a position with which many other Orthodox rabbis disagree.

Rabbi Alex Shandrovsky would be one of them. In March, Shandrovsky, the founder of L’Chaim Foods, a kosher food purveyor in the Bay Area, told a J. reporter that even if the “shr!mp” that was served at his March 6 Filipino food pop-up gained a kosher seal of approval, it’s unlikely it would be considered parve because it originates from animal cells.

Lior disagrees.

“Here, from the beginning it’s not considered meat because it’s a microscopic thing … And even if it were really meat, because it changed its form, a ‘new face has arrived here’ and it’s not considered meat, and it’s clearly parve,” said Lior, using a talmudic expression meaning that something that had previously been forbidden is no longer forbidden because of changing circumstances.

Yisrael Rosen, head of the Zomet Institute, which works to reconcile Orthodox Jewish law and technology, says SuperMeat is meat and suggests it will need rabbinic supervision.

Cherlow said he expects haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis to be divided on this issue. He said that’s partly because religious Zionists are willing to consider extralegal factors, like the welfare of the planet, more than haredi Orthodox rabbis would. Israel’s chief rabbinate will err on the side of the haredim, Cherlow predicted.

Asked if cultured pork would be kosher, Cherlow said: “Emotionally it’s more difficult. But logically it’s the same answer.”

The New York-based Orthodox Union — which doesn’t recognize pig gelatin as kosher — has yet to take a position on cultured meat. But Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the chief operating officer of the OU’s kashrut department, suggested the product sounded a lot like meat. He also confirmed that the OU’s position would be based solely on Jewish law.

“We of course are very concerned about the environment, but our first consideration is always halachah,” he said.

SuperMeat’s concerns are more in line with those of vegans and animal activists. Much of the company’s staff comes from that world, such as co-founder and co-CEO Ido Savir (a vegan and animal rights activist for nearly two decades). Both men left jobs in Israel’s high-tech industry to run the company.

Supporters of SuperMeat include vegan activist and restaurateur Ori Shavit and leaders of the Israel-based advocacy groups the Vegan North and 269.

“I’m a great admirer of the dedication of the people behind the project,” said 269 founder Sasha Boojor. “Of course it would be best if people decided to stop eating animals all together, but it’s not the reality we’re facing right now. And this research can address the suffering of hundreds of billions of animals.”

But other activists caution against being seduced by SuperMeat.

“SuperMeat is not the change of mindset that we are working on,” said Sharbel Balloutine, founder of an Arab-Israel group called the Vegan Human. “We are working on compassion. We are working on justice. And that’s what really attracts me to my vegan activism.”

Nahmias, the scientific brain behind SuperMeat and a rare omnivore on staff, said his work is motivated by his love of schnitzel, an Israeli staple that he said is becoming increasingly unsafe to eat.

“As a kid, I was eating what my mother and my grandmother were cooking. And I want my kids to be able to eat the same kind of schnitzel,” he said. “That’s the reason that I do this.”


Andrew Tobin
Andrew Tobin

JTA Israel correspondent