Q&A w/ CellAgri Founder Ahmed Khan: Can Cell-Based Meat Be Halal?

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Cellular agriculture consultant Ahmed Khan is the founder of CellAgri, a news and market insights company exploring the space and tracking trends and startups. Ahmed is also the author of the first cellular agriculture eBook, ‘An Introduction to Cellular Agriculture,’ and regularly speaks at global industry conferences on the subject. Cell-cultivated meats, dairy and seafood are going to change the way the world eats. Startups in this space are moving at breakneck speed- the first regulatory hurdle was crossed by Eat Just and their new cell-culture chicken offshoot GOOD MEAT in Singapore late last year. Big food companies are inking agreements with upstarts for mass commercialisation. The earliest products could be in restaurants by 2022. This is hugely exciting for the world and a great start towards mitigating the ills of livestock animal farming, which is partly responsible for our acute climate crisis. But it also creates a whole new set of definitional specifications about the products themselves. For example, is cell-based meat halal? In the below interview, we ask Ahmed a whole slew of questions around the topic and his answers should offer some much-needed clarity.

GQ: Just to set the scene with definitions, can you explain what Halal meat is?

AK: To put it simply, halal meat refers to a traditional and ritualistic practice through which an animal is slaughtered. If cell-cultured meat wants to reach the majority of the world’s Muslim population, it will need to be considered a halal meat product.

GQ: Can cellular agriculture meat be halal? Isn’t it halal by definition because there is no slaughter?

AK: I believe cellular agriculture meat can definitely be halal. Generally, there are two thought processes when it comes to how cell-based meat is made halal:

1. As no animal slaughter is involved, the meat should be considered halal (or kosher) by definition.

2. The more traditional position is that, in order to be considered halal, the stem cell lines for cell-based meat need to be extracted from an animal that is slaughtered in the specific halal manner. This is likely to be the position adopted by the majority of Muslims.

While the cellular agriculture field would like the idea that cell-based meat could fit into the definitions of both kosher and halal without requiring to develop novel stem cell lines from a harvested animal, it may be difficult to get the majority of both consumers and halal certification players on board without doing so. They may not equate slaughter-free meat to halal meat. For some more liberal consumers and certification boards, slaughter-free may be adequate to consider or to certify the product as halal.

For the majority, if a cellular agriculture company can extract their stem cells from an animal harvested in a halal manner, the field would probably be able to get most halal certification boards and players to agree that this novel way to make meat can indeed be halal.

In 2017, Dr. Mohammad Naqib Hamdan and Dr. Mark Post (the researcher behind the first cell-cultured meat burger in 2013 and co-founder of Mosa Meat) published a paper looking into the question of whether cultured meat can be considered halal, and they support the same viewpoint. They concluded that cultured meat can be considered halal if the stem cells are sourced from a halal slaughtered animal, and no blood or animal-derived serum is used in the growth process.

When it comes to seafood, it is likely that all cell-based seafood will be considered halal.

GQ: Are there any Islamic jurist opinions/rulings on this matter?

AK: As far as I am aware, there have not been any rulings yet on this matter. Overall, the cellular agriculture field is still pretty early in terms of commercialization so it may be sometime before halal certification boards start to look into cell-based meat. Once this question becomes more widespread, we will likely see multiple views from multiple Sharia scholars.

On a related subject, Alex Shirazi recently interviewed Rabbi Joel Kenigsberg on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show podcast. Rabbi Kenigsberg stated that he has a special interest in applications of ancient Jewish texts to modern technological innovations, and he also shared a similar sentiment when it came to whether cell-based meat could be considered kosher. According to the rabbi, cell-based meat could only be considered kosher if the original stem cells are extracted from an animal harvested in a kosher manner.

Other rabbis have also expressed different views on how cell-based meat can be considered kosher. Similarly, going forward, there will be varying views from Islamic scholars and halal certification boards about both how and what cell-based meat products can be considered halal.

GQ: What about cell-cultivated pork? Is it still out of the question?

AK: Pork meat cannot be halal by definition, so that is out of the question. Even if only animal cells are involved in the cell-based pork meat production process, the source stem cells to make cell-based pork comes from a pig. With that in mind I cannot imagine cell-based pork ever being considered halal.

GQ: Will cellular meat companies need to certify their products as halal?

AK: It will be important for cell-based meat companies to obtain certification for their products as halal to reach the world’s Muslim populations. For some parts of the world, like countries in the Middle East, meat can only be produced in the country if it is halal.

For consumer transparency and understanding, it will be important for cell-based meat producers to highlight that they worked with the appropriate regulators and certification boards to have their products deemed halal. Beyond that, it will be important for these companies to clearly communicate with and inform the public on not just how cell-based meat is produced, but why scientists and companies around the world are working to produce animal products in this sustainable manner.

Just an aside to finish on, for the majority of people interested in this technology, it may not be relevant if the meat is considered halal or kosher or not. For them, it may just be enough for the meat to be slaughter-free and produced in a sustainable manner.

It might be adequate for a substantial number who consider halal certification important that some scholars or certification boards deem cell-based meat to be halal.


Lead image courtesy of Good Meat / Eat Just.

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