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What is ‘Clean Meat’ and is it Halal?

Silicon Valley probably makes you think of Facebook, Google, Steve Jobs, and 23-year-old millionaires in sandals. It is the land of tech innovation, where people with big ideas want to change the way you do, well, everything.

Even so, we never thought Silicon Valley would figure out a way to significantly change something as basic, as instinctive, as necessary as food. But it seems to be well on its way.

Between all the apps and the start-ups and self-driving cars, there are people who are working to reinvent meat. High tech cell cultured meat, known in the industry as ‘clean meat’, is fast becoming a thing.

If you already know what clean meat is, carry on. If not, here’s an extremely entry level explanation. Clean meat starts with a handful of cells that have been extracted from an animal, like chickens, lamb, cows or anything else you’d expect to find at the meat counter.

The cells are then placed in a nutrient-dense liquid medium in a bioreactor, where they grow and multiply until they form into a combination of muscle and fat tissue. The scientists at the companies behind this product say it’s identical to meat on a molecular level.

So it’s actual meat, grown in a lab, using cells from an animal. One company claims they can grow clean chicken meat using only the cells from the tip of the bird’s feather.

Here’s why clean meat could be viewed as a good thing: as no animals are slaughtered, the ethical and environmental impact of animal husbandry is potentially reduced.

Here’s why clean meat could be viewed as not so good: it’s very weird….and for people who consider the raising and slaughter of animals to be a vital part of their religious approach to food, it’s a very, very grey area.

But when the halal market is thought to be worth £1.6 trillion(!) globally, you can see why the companies behind clean meat are trying to figure out a way to sell it Muslims.

For a recent article in Quartz, Chernor Saad-Jalloh, an imam in New York City, was shown an explanatory video from Hampton Creek, one of the companies making clean meat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he reacted with these words: ‘This is new to us, something I’ve never thought about…This isn’t something you would find in the Qu’ran.’

The Qu’ran says that God provided man with animals and plants to use as food. The act of slaughter and the accompanying prayer is a crucial part of the halal process, so eliminating it would surely mean it is no longer halal.

Or would it? While clean meat might be meat on a molecular level, the fact it hasn’t come from a slaughtered animal means the rules of halal might not apply. Then again, those cells would have had to come from an animal at some point, and if it wasn’t slaughtered in accordance with the halal process, then it’s not…you see what we’re getting it.

One suggestion has been the creation of ‘immortal cells’. This would involve the halal slaughter of a single animal, from which cells would be extracted. These cells would be used to grow the clean meat. The process would cause them to multiply, meaning more cells could be used from the same original sample (similar to the yeast ‘starters’ used to bake sourdough bread).

Unfortunately, the science is fairly inexact, and the companies behind the research are still in the early stages of figuring out how to keep ‘immortal cell lines’ alive.

You will just have to watch this space. But whatever solution clean meat companies come to with religious scholars (if any), it’s certainly a fascinating subject – albeit a very confusing one.

As Saad-Jalloh told Quartz: ‘We have a long way to go with this…I believe there are many things to talk about and to look for.’

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