It almost sounds like a joke: Kosher pork? Impossible!
In late September, the Orthodox Union (OU)—the world’s largest organization certifying kosher foods—announced that Impossible Foods’s new vegan “pork” product would not be labeled as kosher. Pork is one of the most explicitly prohibited foods in kashrut—the collection of Jewish rules regarding food preparation and consumption. But provided sufficient supervision and monitoring, entirely plant-based foods generally are kosher. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency , Rabbi Menachem Genack,* head of the OU’s kosher division, acknowledged that there may not be a reason to deny kosher certification based on Impossible Pork’s ingredients or its production process. “If it’s completely plant-derived, it’s kosher. Just in terms of sensitivities to the consumer … it didn’t get it.”
The controversial decision raises broader questions about the politics and economics of religious dietary laws, the way that religious communities navigate new developments in biotechnology and culinary science, and the entanglement of authority, culture, and public perception when it comes to navigating these issues. The OU’s decision asserts that something presenting itself as “pork,” even if it contains no traces of pig, or of any other animal product for that matter, could cause confusion or offend some people who keep kosher. This ruling led some rabbis and other Jewish commentators to weigh in, supplementing the OU’s justifications with claims that rejecting Impossible Pork was a statement against or against a society grown too from its food.
“I think it’s absurd, actually,” Rabbi Ariann Weitzman told me. Weitzman serves on the Rabbinic Council of , an organization that promotes veganism and animal welfare as an outgrowth of Jewish teachings. She said, “There’s not really an argument that eating something that has a very strong resemblance to an animal product is problematic.” Weitzman pointed out that many kosher restaurants, particularly kosher vegetarian restaurants, already serve “things that are extraordinarily similar to non-kosher meats” but are approved. She added, “I think there’s an overall understanding that it’s possible to eat things that look like they’re non-kosher, and know they are kosher.”
Rabbi Zev Schwarcz, who runs the , which monitors and certifies several restaurants (including many vegan ones, which don’t have to concern themselves with rules that apply specifically to kosher dairy and kosher meat foods), agrees that the issue of plant products imitating meat ones isn’t new or a problem. After all, he noted that the OU certifies imitation “bacon” bits. Schwarcz doesn’t think the fact that vegan versions of meat use the same name is grounds to deny kosher status. “We have the certificate, and it says kosher and it says vegan. So we’re confident in the intelligence of people to be able to understand.”
But concerns about potential confusion are not new. Alluding to the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy foods, Chef Bryan Gryka told me, “When non-dairy sour creams came out, a lot of Kosher certifications were reluctant to put those on the menus with meat because of marit ayin”—meaning Hebrew for “how it appears to the eye.” Gryka is the chef and principal owner of Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, a kosher meat restaurant in Chicago that serves a beef-based “bacon.” Gryka said that the Chicago Rabbinic Council, which supervises kosher restaurants in the Midwest, requires that “bacon” be printed in quotation marks on the menu to avoid any confusion.
This is the paradox of fake meat. Its success relies on its being as indistinguishable from animal meat as possible while also making clear to eaters that it is not actually meat. Creating that sense of authenticity is not only reflected in formulating the physical food—its flavors and textures—but the social experience of meat consumption, a practice with deep cultural importance. In the United States, meat-eating plays certain ritualistic functions in society (for example, the Thanksgiving turkey, the ballpark frank, and many other foods considered “traditional.”). Even in private settings such as the home, meat-eating is often associated with luxury, with indications of class or wealth and, in many cases, masculinity. For plant-based products to succeed in the omnivore market, they need to adhere to a form of cultural conservatism. Successful fake meat is one that can be consumed in places and ways that allow the vegetarian to assimilate into an omnivorous society.
This paradox may explain why vegetarianism has often found greater success among those already working for cultural change in other ways. Social reform movements, particularly religious ones, have been at the forefront of the modern fake meat industry since its inception in the late nineteenth century, explains Adam Shprintzen, a historian at Marywood University and author of . “American vegetarianism has always been in conversation with the major religious changes and movements occurring in the United States,” Shprintzen wrote in an email. One of the very first foods marketed in the U.S. as a “fake meat” was the wheat gluten and cereal-based , which was developed by John Harvey Kellogg in the early twentieth century as result of his involvement with the Adventist movement and its concerns for reforming human health.
Vegetarian foods were also marketed to meat eaters. During World War I, Americans were encouraged to go meatless one day a week to support the war effort. “Ads for meatless products capitalized on this moment and promoted vegetarianism as an act of patriotic self-sacrifice amongst the meat-eating masses,” Shprintzen wrote.
Similar altruistic language, in this era about supporting environmental benefits through plant-eating, can be seen in the marketing of Impossible Foods and many of its fellow fake-meat makers. That kind of messaging targets omnivores, not vegetarians or vegans who already eschew meat. (I saw this first-hand a few years ago when I attended a panel presentation on biotechnology and agriculture and had the opportunity to meet a representative from Impossible Foods. When I told him I was excited to hear his presentation because I was a vegan, he smiled and chuckled as he said: “You’re not our target market!”)
This marketing strategy doesn’t just make ecological sense; it’s also economic. There is a larger market among non-vegetarians. Even if they only replace the occasional meat meal with a plant substitute, there’s more omnivore dollars to be earned than profit in convincing vegetarians to trade one plant-based meal for another.
While fake meats can appeal to other omnivores as an environmental, ethical, or dietary improvement over animal consumption, for the kosher market, successful fake meat presents additional consumer possibilities. The rules of kashrut prohibit combinations of meat and dairy products and determine which animal meat can be kosher. Impossible Food’s beef-emulating burgers are already OU-certified kosher and neither dairy nor meat. Kosher diners could experience foods like cheeseburgers (with Kosher dairy or vegan cheese) or other traditional dishes that would violate kashrut if made with animal products. Impossible Pork, if deemed kosher, would expand the potential gastronomic experience available.
But this possibility also brings with it concerns about assimilation and a weakening of kosher practices, as well as a threat to observant Jewish practice and a disruption to the kosher food industry that caters to that population. Roger Horowitz, a food historian at the Hagley Museum in Delaware and the author of , observes that foods that are technically kosher but seem to go against the spirit of kashrut occupy a contested space. He told me, “Really since the first development of kosher law, it’s rarely obvious about what should and shouldn’t be kosher.” The rules, he notes, evolve. And, he adds, “There’s always a debate among rabbis about stringency versus leniency when it comes to kosher standards.”
And sometimes, appearances matter. Eating an Impossible Beef hamburger with dairy cheese may be technically allowed, but for some people, as Rabbi Weitzman pointed out, “It just feels culturally wrong. I’m keeping the actual guidelines of kashrut, but I’m not keeping the spirit of kashrut.” Some people may choose to eat an Impossible cheeseburger at home but may resist doing so at a restaurant or in public, based on their personal sense of what kashrut requires.
Decisions like the OU’s that go beyond regulating ingredients and preparation may underestimate kosher consumers. “It reflects a really low opinion of the population that keeps kosher,” Weitzman said. “One argument that’s been posed to me was what if somebody eats this Impossible Pork and they really like it and they’re just compelled to eat real pork afterwards? I honestly do not think that kosher-keeping people have such a low commitment to their ideals.” To Weitzman, the OU’s decision is rooted in a “conservatism around cultural practices. We want Jews to look like Jews in a very particular way.”
This distinction between how one keeps kosher in public as opposed to at home, and how much those practices are enforced by a community or by institutions rather than individually, illustrates the complexities of cultural and political influences on kosher law. When it comes to processed foods that are made for a broad audience, that influence goes in both directions. Kosher certification confers a kind of legitimacy on particular foods and producers, and the ability of kosher certifiers to work with big name brands also confers legitimacy on their certification process. Horowitz detailed how the OU and other Jewish leaders worked with industrial food producers to certify as kosher some ubiquitous major American brands, such as Coca Cola and Oreos, allowing widespread and culturally desirable foods to be consumed by kosher Jews.
Horowitz doubts that there’s the same kind of widespread demand for fake pork among kosher eaters as there was for Oreos or Coke. He pointed to the unique place that pigs hold in Jewish history. “You have to think about the Jewish attitude toward pork as one of oppression,” he said. “Jews were stigmatized by the Inquisition and other groups for the non-consumption of pork. Depictions of Jews with pigs was a trope of antisemitic propaganda, throughout the medieval and early modern eras. So the resistance to pork is at a whole different level than other kinds of non-kosher animals.” Some Jews even avoid mentioning pigs by name. It’s easy to see why for some Jews, the idea of tasting something called “pork,” even if technically kosher, holds limited appeal.
But Rabbi Schwarcz suggests a different significance of pigs for Jews, pointing to Torah commentaries that suggest that in the messianic age to come, pigs will become kosher. “If they found a way to taste it already, to me it’s like a prequel to the truth!” Schwarcz enthused. “Who knows? Maybe this is what the prophecy means. Maybe it doesn’t mean a pig itself will become kosher, but you’ll be able to taste pig when Moshiach [the messiah] comes. To me this is something to celebrate!”
Kosher status matters a lot more to local restaurants like Milt’s than to Coca Cola. Milt’s already serves the kosher Impossible Burger, but without approval, it won’t add Impossible Pork to its menu. “I understand their decision, I don’t necessarily agree with it,” Gryka said. I asked if he would consider serving Impossible Pork if the OU decision were eventually changed: “Absolutely,” he responded, “without hesitation.” Though after a moment’s pause, the chef added, “I’d want to try it first.”
Adam R. Shapiro is a historian of science and co-author of the second edition of the forthcoming Oxford Very Short Introduction to Science and Religion.
*Correction: The draft originally misspelled Menachem Genack’s first name. It has been updated.