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Culture

The Sectarian Future of Lab-Grown Meat

There will not be one type of cultured chicken. There will be kosher cultured chicken, halal cultured chicken, and ... vegan cultured chicken?

A scientist holding a drumstick.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When you’re a vegetarian, you get used to dealing with sneering, horrified, nosy, and bewildered questions of “...but why?!

My own well-practiced answer — designed to minimize confrontation — goes something like this: I was raised not eating red meat and then when I was a teenager, I became obsessed with our cultural disconnect from our food and decided that if I couldn’t stomach killing and preparing an animal myself, then I had no right to eat it. But don’t worry, my husband eats meat! I’m not judgmental!

The truth is actually much more complicated and nuanced (my “long version” includes anecdotes about my stint at a wildlife rehabilitation center, my father’s heart attack, and an explanation of why I eat meat when I travel abroad), but I usually don’t get that far when talking with strangers. That’s because what we eat and why are deeply personal questions that can touch on everything from one’s religious beliefs to their code of ethics, cultural and philosophical values, health, and concerns about environmental impact. Every person who observes dietary restrictions around meat has spent at least some time — perhaps very little, maybe every single day — privately weighing these considerations.

Then earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threw all of that carefully considered reasoning out the window by approving the sale of lab-grown chicken.

Don’t get me wrong: This is incredible news. Around 15% of global emissions come from livestock farming (including dairy and eggs), and it would likely be impossible to get everyone on the planet to switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Indeed, for animal rights activists, “cell-cultivated” or “cultured” meat has long been akin to cold fusion for food — that is, a science-fiction solution that theoretically fixes everything.

But now, using cells harvested from live animals, companies like Upside Foods and Good Meat are able to safely grow animal fat and muscle tissue in stainless steel tanks, resulting in what is essentially slaughter-free animal protein for human consumption. When I spoke with the influential animal welfare philosopher Peter Singer a few months ago about the ethical quandaries of eating meat during the climate crisis, he’d cited such advancements in cultured meat (at the time, only available in Singapore) as an exciting, if far-off, opportunity, telling me “if we can get that economically competitive, maybe that’ll be a solution to the problem.”

The widespread proliferation of cultured meat is admittedly still a long way off. For the time being, lab-grown chicken will only be sold in select U.S. restaurants and an enormous amount of scaling is required for cultured meat to begin to replace industrial farming. There are also concerns that current production methods are not actually more sustainable than live-animal farming. Plus, there is a squeamish factor of “meat grown in tanks” to be cleared.

But the USDA approval is still nothing short of a game-changer. “I’m vegan for ethical reasons, and so if people can enjoy the familiar tastes of meat and textures of chicken and whatever else without animals dying, then that’s a huge win in my book,” Nisha Vora, a vegan recipe developer and cookbook author who runs the YouTube channel and blogRainbow Plant Life, told me. Still, “it will be weird to eat chicken!” she admitted.

Vora isn’t sure yet how much lab-grown meat will factor into her future recipes, explaining that many of her followers are interested in whole foods and cooking that is meat-adjacent, “so I don’t think I have a huge swath of my audience that’s really like, ‘oh, I can’t wait for meat,’ you know?” She observed, though, that lab-grown meat could potentially make labor-intensive parts of some of her recipes, like her popular vegan Crunchwrap Supreme dupe, easier and quicker, albeit not quite as healthy. “If you are vegan for health reasons, or you’re plant-based for health reasons … then maybe that’s not what you want to be eating,” she pointed out.

Omnivores might be scratching their heads at these fine nuances, wondering why they’re a big deal: No animals are killed, can’t you people ever be happy? But it’s actually the fact that the animals aren’t killed that might prevent a quarter of the world’s population from eating lab-grown meat.

Many religions have customs regarding meat consumption, including Judaism, Hinduism, certain denominations of Christianity, and Islam — groups that together make up approximately half of the global population. That means there is a lot of confusion and theological debate when it comes to cultured meat. As The Washington Post once memorably put it, “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, tastes like a duck, but you’re not supposed to eat a duck, does God consider this ‘cheating’?”

The answer is, it depends.

Take halal, the Islamic laws governing food. A number of rules must be met for meat to be considered permissible to eat, including proper slaughtering of the animal. It is, for example, forbidden to eat an animal that dies naturally and becomes a carcass. This is an essential technicality for the 25% of people globally who keep halal.

“Any severed part of a surviving (land) livestock animal can become a carcass” — including its cells, one recent Malaysian study explained. As such, lab-grown meat would only be halal if the animal the cells were collected from was “slaughtered according to the Shariah law.” Such an interpretation has been echoed by religious authorities in Pakistan and Indonesia, the two countries with the largest Muslim populations. (Kosher-slaughtered origin animals may be acceptable in the eyes of rabbis, too, although Jewish authorities have gone back and forth on the matter).

But using cells from a slaughtered animal might be a non-starter for some hardcore animal rights activists since the shift makes the lab-grown cells ever so slightly less cruelty-free. PETA has long been a proponent and backer of cultivated meat, although on the grounds that “no animal died for it.” As PETA’s Catie Cryar clarified for me, “It is our hope that the original process used to obtain cells will be superseded by scientific advances, but at the very least, our goal would be to have no additional animals slaughtered after the original cell lines were obtained.” That means there is potentially a world in which even cultured meat gets labels distinguishing it as either “vegan friendly” or “halal and kosher” (currently, most cultivated meats are made from live-animal cells).

Hindus, meanwhile, may not eat cultured beef regardless of its origin due to the sacred status of cows, one 2020 survey found, although overall Hinduism was “the only religious group who were … more willing to eat cultured meat than conventional meat … perhaps highlighting the motivation to avoid harming animals.” And of course, all of this generalizes the positions of enormously diverse world religions — every worshipper will have their own perspective.

Then there is a whole other sect of non-meat-eaters that we’ve largely ignored: those who abstain for health reasons. While meat substitutes on the market today are made from plants, lab-grown meat is still animal meat. But that also means eating cultured steaks isn’t any better for you than eating real steaks. Even if cellular meat does eventually take off, there will be plenty of people who avoid it simply because they don’t want to include meat in their diet, no matter what its animal or, uh, tank of origin is.

Now let me guess, you nosy Nelly — you’re wondering at this point what I am going to do? I admit my thinking has been all over the place. Sure, when it comes to my animal-ethics-forward viewpoints, there should be nothing stopping me from eating lab-grown meat. I’m a big believer in open-mindedness and adaption and I fully support lab-grown meat being available on the wider market. But I also enjoy the health benefits of eating plant-based, and it’s conceptually just strange to think of myself eating chicken protein even if no chickens were harmed in the making of my meal.

Mostly I just think it’s funny how one little USDA stamp of approval has the potential to unmoor my entire identity as a vegetarian — whatever that even means anymore. We’ll probably need to come up with new terms to distinguish between people who don’t eat animal proteins, period, and people who don’t eat slaughtered animals.

I’m sure, also, that there will eventually be a need for a term to describe meat purists who avoid tank-grown proteins. Then at last it’ll be my turn to snort and ask, “...but why?!

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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