What’s the Beef?


The following is part of an article that appeared in a local publication a couple of years ago:

In early August 2013, scientists held a taste-testing for burgers made from laboratory grown meat. This report came out just about a year and a half after the “pink slime” report of March 2012.

For anyone who missed that story, pink slime is filler that was found to be present in 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets and at the time constituted about 25 percent of every hamburger.  It is gelatinous material made from the most contaminated parts of the cow formerly used only for dog food and cooking oil.  To make it USDA approved “safe” for human consumption, trimmings are simmered at a low temperature, fat separated from tissue by centrifuge and the result sprayed with ammonia gases to kill germs.  Safe and delicious.  Really?

Now we have burgers created by extracting stem cells from the muscle tissue of a dead cow, nourishing them in a chemical broth and engineering them to produce something like muscle tissue. Strands of tissue are compacted into pellets and frozen, then defrosted for cooking.  The artificial meat starts out white, so dyes are added to make it look more like the real thing.  And there we have it . . . tissue created in a laboratory from a dead cow’s stem cells bathed in chemicals and dyed to the appropriate color.  Safe and potentially delicious when they get the chemicals right.  Really?

The arguments in favor of this “magic meat” are that it requires killing fewer animals, is more sustainable and vastly more environmentally friendly.  I get it.  But there are other paths to the same goal.  For me, at least, those paths are healthier, tastier and more spiritually satisfying.

Speaking of “magic meat,” I was curious if the concoction would be considered kosher.  The Jewish dietary laws are centered primarily around meat, fish, poultry . . . and insects, in other words, living creatures.  I understand this body of laws as an expression of reverence for life.

I did a little research and found that while there is as yet no definitive ruling on this question, there is an interesting Talmudic discussion about the status of “magic meat,” meat that descends from heaven or is miraculously created by human beings.  The argument was presented (in the 16th century!) that this meat could be eaten without kosher slaughtering.  The meat could even be eaten live, limb from limb — otherwise forbidden — since normal laws do not apply to it.

Biblical and Jewish dietary regulations express deep and important values about living creatures, the line between life and death and our place as human beings.  The discussion of “magic meat” along with the rest of the discussion about the status of this manufactured meat expresses those same values and lays bare the complexity of ethical dilemmas involved in meat eating.

I’m often asked why I’m vegetarian.  The assumption is that it is for reasons of health.  It isn’t.  It also isn’t environmentally driven.  Although I disagree with the agri-business model for meat production current in our country and believe it is dangerous for our eco-system, our health and our spiritual balance, I can see there is a way to include meat in one’s diet that is healthy for ourselves and the planet.  For those who do eat meat . . . as Michael Pollan says, pay more and eat less.  There are options other than meat from factory farmed animals.

My own vegetarianism is driven by my spiritual values.  In that context, pink slime and “magic meat” are no more an option for me than supermarket plastic wrapped packages.  Meat from grass fed animals is also not an option for me.  I never eat or make meat “substitutes.”  I make good food from plants, which offer a world of delicious and spiritually satisfying options.

Here’s one: Falafel.  When eaten in the traditional way with Tahina, Falafel are a complete protein package.  Along with protein, this combo packs essential fatty acids and high fiber.  Falafel were not created to substitute for anything and in their long history were never anything but Falafel.  The beans are not cooked, just soaked, so they retain a wonderfully crunchy texture.  They can be loaded with lots of green stuff and seasoned with some of my favorite seasonings.  Occasionally frying foods in good oils at the correct temperature is, in my opinion, much less likely to damage to your health than “magic meat” or pink slime.  Certainly it will do less damage to your soul.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!