Singapore’s Lab-Grown Meat May Have an Ethical Problem

Delicious, but is it Kosher?

Key Takeaways

  • Singapore has approved lab-grown chicken for sale.
  • Lab meat is grown in a serum derived from blood of cow fetuses, although non-animal alternatives are being sought.
  • Lab-meat may be grown without animals, but it may not be Halal, Kosher, or vegan.
Cultured Chicken plated with mashed potatoes

Eat Just

Singapore is the first country in the world to approve lab-grown meat for sale. Humans will be able to enjoy chicken grown by San Francisco-based Eat Just, in a lab, with no actual chickens involved. However, this cultured meat is still far from vegan.

Right now, lab meat is still grown in a medium that uses fetal bovine serum (FBS), which comes from the blood of cow fetuses, and is harvested from pregnant cows. Lab meat offers a bright future in terms of emissions, animal welfare, and human health, but the ethics are still complex. 

"FBS contains a mixture of all [the] most important types of proteins and growth factors required for cell culture," cultured meat expert Jordi Morales-Dalmau, a project manager for German biotechnology company OSPIN, told Lifewire via instant message. "Since FBS is so versatile and rich, it is very difficult to mimic in the lab with natural or synthetic compounds."

Gross Medium

The fetal bovine serum growth medium is not only gross (although the animals that it is harvested from are probably treated way better than animals in the conventional food chain), it is expensive, and, of course, it requires animals. The goal of lab meat is to do away with the emissions of producing so much meat, to make purer meat without antibiotics or bacteria, and to rival real meat on price. To do this, it needs a cheap, plentiful alternative to FBS.

"It needs to become mainstream for it to have the most impact in reducing environmental footprint and achieving net-zero emissions," Clare Trippett, chief technologist at U.K.-based technology innovation center CPI, told Food Ingredients First. The aim of the CPI’s project is to find growth media based on the by-products of the agricultural industry.

"Lots of studies, including startups, are developing ‘simpler’ mediums, by removing the least relevant components and/or focusing on specific types of cells," says Morales-Dalmau.

Is It Kosher? Halal? Vegan?

In Elementary Season 5, Episode 8, Sherlock and Joan investigate a murder linked to lab-grown meat. Spoiler: the motive has to do with the classification of lab meat. Sherlock consults with Muslim and Jewish leaders. If lab meat is classed as a meat substitute, and not actual meat, then it could be certified Kosher or Halal. That would mean big business—hence the murder. 

A story of non-animal meat exists in the Talmud, but faced with meat created by humans, and not by God, things get more complicated. Even with a non-animal growth medium, the original meat cells that start the culture are animals. This would, it seems, rule out lab-grown pork.

"Since FBS is so versatile and rich, it is very difficult to mimic in the lab with natural or synthetic compounds."

For vegans, the question is simpler, as it involves only personal ethics, and not religious law. Strictly, animal-derived products aren’t vegan, but if the only animal-sourced part is the cell-scraping used to start the culture, perhaps many otherwise strict vegans will relent, relying on their own ethics instead of dogma. 

It’s a complex subject, but for non-vegans who are not subject to religious law, it comes down to sustainability, a lack of ongoing animal cruelty, and taste. Then again, maybe taste doesn’t come into it. Plenty of people are happy to eat hot dogs and chicken nuggets, after all.

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