Islamic scholars rule on how to make lab-grown meat halal

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Meat grown in a lab could be considered halal, according to advice from Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia to a US food start-up, as the industry starts to explore certification for products to fit religious dietary rules. 

San Francisco-based Eat Just asked three sharia law scholars to examine whether cultivated meat can be halal. The scholars concluded it could, provided any stem cells used to make it were taken from halal sources, among other stipulations. 

While the industry is a long way from reaching commercial scale, US and Singapore regulators have given the green light to a handful of lab-grown meat start-ups, and companies have been looking to test whether their products could be appropriate for the billions of consumers who eat a halal or kosher diet. 

The process is far from simple because religious dietary certification varies from country to country and religious authorities across jurisdictions may have differing opinions.

Mirte Gosker, managing director of alternative protein advocacy group the Good Food Institute in Asia Pacific, said that while the Eat Just decision does not immediately change the halal status of cultivated meat products on the market, it laid the groundwork for commercialisation. 

“This week’s ruling provides much-needed insight on what an approval road map might look like, and we expect that start-ups will immediately begin adapting their production processes to satisfy this new guidance,” she said. 

Lab-grown or “cultured” meat is made from animal cells and grown in bioreactors, in contrast to plant based meat — produced by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — which is made of ingredients including pea and soy protein. Over the past year, investors have been betting on cultured meat over the plant-based version.

The Islamic scholars advised that to be considered halal, the product’s cell line had to derive from an animal that Muslims are allowed to eat, that was slaughtered according to Islamic law, and that was fed permitted nutrients. They also stipulated the finished product should be edible, healthy and approved by the relevant regulatory agency.

Eat Just’s chief executive and co-founder Josh Tetrick said that while the company’s products were not currently halal, they would begin the process of ensuring they were. This would involve switching their current cell lines, which derive from a chick embryo, for cell lines from a fresh piece of halal meat.

Tetrick said there was strong demand for lab-grown meat in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East and South-East Asia, partly to improve food security.

“Our priorities are scaling up the technology, reducing costs and ensuring that it’s open to everyone, including 2bn people who simply won’t eat meat unless its halal.”

Eat Just’s cultivated meat division Good Meat, which sells its cultured chicken at one restaurant in Singapore and one in Washington DC, is now working with Saudi Arabia’s Halal Products Advisory — a subsidiary of the country’s Public Investment Fund — to get advice on the certification process. 

In Singapore, the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, the only entity with the right to issue halal certification in the city state, is working with Singaporean cultivated meat maker Esco Aster to establish a regulatory framework. 

The world’s largest kosher certification authority Orthodox Union last week certified the chicken cell line used by Israeli food start-up SuperMeat.

There are already signs of disagreement. Indonesia’s leading Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, ruled in 2021 that cells taken from living animals and cultivated in a bioreactor were not halal.

In Israel, meanwhile, which has become a hub for cultivated meat start-ups, the country’s Ashkenazi chief Rabbi David Lau in January said that Aleph Farms’ lab-grown steak was kosher. However, Rabbi Menachem Genack, the chief executive of the Orthodox Union, said it was not, because the cell line was harvested from a living animal.

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