Why plant-based 'pork' is giving some Jews and Muslims pause

The latest entry into the Impossible Foods world — Impossible Pork — may have wound up alienating part of its target market.

Some Jews and Muslims are grappling with painful history as they contemplate Impossible Pork

Impossible Pork is the latest plant-based meat to hit the market. But it failed to get certification as being kosher or halal, which has led to some spiritual reflection. (Submitted by Aymann Ismail)

Originally aired December 5, 2021.

Over the past decade or so, plant-based foods masquerading as meat have become ubiquitous at backyard barbecues. 

Plant-based burgers are marketed to taste, smell, even sizzle like real meat. Some even contain a product meant to mimic the red blood of meat. 

But the latest entry into the Impossible Foods world — Impossible Pork — may have alienated part of its target market.

"It's so messy and complicated," said Aymann Ismail, who wrote about his dilemma as a Muslim surrounding plant-based pork

"I spent my whole life avoiding pork, and now I kind of have... I'm putting in air quotes... an acceptable pork product that I can eat," he told Mary Hynes on CBC Radio's Tapestry. "How does that change my relationship to pork?"

Writer Aymann Ismail says the arrival of Impossible Pork has led him to reflect on what makes him Muslim. (Submitted by Aymann Ismail)

About that name

Billions of Jews and Muslims around the world avoid pork due to religious teachings.   

While it was initially produced with the kosher and halal markets in mind, Impossible Pork wasn't certified by either the Orthodox Union or the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.

The problem? The name.

"There's a lot ... of emotional, inherited trauma around pork that I think makes it much more powerful and kind of more taboo and more something you want to avoid," cookbook author and writer Leah Koenig told Tapestry.

Impossible Pork has been sold in the U.S. and Hong Kong since last year, and, according to Impossible Foods, will be on Canadian tables, too.

But a company spokesperson confirmed to CBC in an email that the product will not be kosher or halal as long as "pork" is in the name. 

Indeed, when the Orthodox Union, one of the largest and most influential kosher certifiers in the world, decided not to confer certification, the head of its kosher division said it had little to do with Impossible Pork's ingredients

"We didn't give an 'OU' to it — not because it wasn't kosher per se," said Rabbi Menachem Genack. "It may indeed be completely in terms of its ingredients… . Just in terms of sensitivities to the consumer… it didn't get it."

Cookbook author Leah Koenig says pork is for many Jews a line in the sand, and too emotionally fraught. (Sophie Barbasch)

Pork weaponized against Jews

Though she grew up in a non-traditional Jewish household eating meat and dairy together and also consuming shellfish, Koenig says it's been about 25 years since she's eaten pork. 

Her decision to abstain is rooted in the deep history of pork being weaponized against Jews. 

"During the Spanish Inquisition, when the Jews of Spain and Portugal were basically told to either convert to Catholicism or leave or be killed... one of the ways that Jews were identified [was] by not eating pork. So they would offer Jews pork during their trial to find out if they were Jewish or not."

Koenig, who wrote about whether it's kosher to eat fake pork around the same time Ismail was writing about his dilemma with it as a Muslim, did eventually try Impossible Pork, but says she's not alone in her unease.

"I spoke to a couple of rabbis I know who are vegan and Orthodox, and neither of them were at all interested in trying the Impossible Pork. They were just like... 'even though it satisfies the letter of the law, it doesn't feel like it satisfies the spirit of the law.'"

'A really powerful thing'

Kat Romanow comes to the debate from a slightly different viewpoint. The Jewish food historian from Montreal grew up Catholic and eating pork, but converted to Judaism as an adult.

She cooks and eats fake bacon and sausages, but for reasons similar to Koenig's, won't eat Impossible Pork.

"Not eating pork is a way for many Jews to reaffirm their Jewish identity on a daily basis," she said. "The kosher food laws have been a way to mark yourself as Jewish, mark yourself as different." 

Jewish food historian Kat Romanow believes individuals should be able to decide whether or not to eat a fake pork product with no shame. (Rachel Cheng)

But Romanow thinks fake pork can help strengthen the diversity of the community, especially if someone ate pork growing up, and maybe had a pork dish that was very important to them culturally, but which they can no longer make if they now keep kosher.

"Now they have this way to make it and introduce it to their family and to their kids and to other people in the community, which I think can also be... a really powerful thing."

A loss of tradition?

For Ismail, pork is powerful, too, but for a different reason. 

"Here's the problem with pork," he said. "God, a very long time ago said, 'Don't eat it.'"

He says pork isn't even meat anymore for Muslims — it's more of a test. And Muslims need to figure out how to be good worshippers "in a world where everything is saturated and dipped in pork, and it smells so good and it's everywhere."

He was curious about trying Impossible Pork, and knew when he did that he wasn't actually breaking any religious laws.

And yet.

"On the one hand, the spirit of what makes us Muslim is all the things that we do together and all the things that we don't do together as, like, rituals," he said. "And not eating pork and staying away from pork is one of those rituals."

Ismail cooks up some Impossible Pork. He and Koenig tried it together after each wrote about their struggles with it. (Leah Koenig)

He wondered if eating meatless pork would somehow distance him from his faith's traditions.

"Thinking about what you're consuming in the supermarket is a way to connect you to God and make you more mindful of your spirituality in a way that you wouldn't expect," he said. "It's kind of cool that you can just be in a grocery line, and then all of a sudden you start thinking about your place in the universe."

For Tabassum Wyne, a longtime foodie and executive director of the Muslim Advisory Council of Canada, Impossible Pork is a non-starter. She has tried other plant-based meats and not enjoyed them. One purporting to be pork is even less appealing. 

"It's in the Qur'an that we're not allowed to eat pork. And I also would not want to send a mixed signal to my children, who are four and five, that pork is OK."

Tabassum Wyne, a food writer and executive director of the Muslim Advisory Council of Canada, says Impossible Pork is a non-starter for her. (Hiba Alvi/@haphotography)

But she says that's just her. 

"It all starts at home, and if parents are able to differentiate that this Impossible Pork is just vegan and there's no animal byproducts in it, and they explain it clearly to their children, then, of course, I think they'll be able to make their own decision."

Still, Ismail worries about the possible implications for future generations of Muslims.

"Their connection and their understanding of what pork is and... what our relationship is supposed to be to it as Muslims, who avoid it, will be changed forever. There's so many implications of what happens to the next generation where they don't think of pork in the same ways," he said. 

"And I think that's kind of scary for many of us who have attached so much weight and value to avoiding it."

Written by Stephanie Hogan. Interviews by Arman Aghbali and Stephanie Hogan.