By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • July 16, 2015
Executives at pasta giant Barilla recently made a surprising announcement: The company will ban animal testing throughout its operations immediately, and plans to require members of its supply chain to do the same.
“We believe, big time, that this is the right commitment,” says Luca Virginio, chief communication officer of Barilla. “Animal testing is absolutely against the way we interpret our role in the society.”
But that begs a bigger question: Since when do food companies worry about animal testing?
The answer: Probably more than you think. While animal testing is widely understood to be present in industries like cosmetics and chemicals, its presence in food is less obvious. And that even goes for the leaders of the companies that use it. Take Barilla, whose top executives first learned of the company’s tests in a June 9 letter from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights advocacy group.
The letter notes two studies the company had commissioned, both of which involved force-feeding rats to gauge whether durum wheat boosts omega-3s. The intent, says Virginio, was to establish whether consuming wheat might “contribute to the prevention of chronic-degenerative diseases.” Noting that “customers around the world—including many PETA supporters—would be surprised and dismayed to learn about this situation,” PETA suggests Barilla adopt a policy against “funding, conducting, and commissioning experiments on animals.” The tests had been suggested, says Virginio, by an “outside expert,” and for top management, the whole thing “was a surprise.”
And that’s fairly typical, says Justin Goodman, director of PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department. “Most people, even if they are peripherally responsible, know about cosmetics and drug testing,” he says. But “even people who work in this area, typically, have never heard of such a thing as a food company doing animal tests.”
Meanwhile, food manufacturers and marketers have a strong incentive to develop claims about a food’s health benefits: It sells. Consumer interest in healthy eating is increasing around the world, with 65 percent of consumers “moderately or very willing” to pay higher prices for healthier food, according to the Nielsen Global Health and Wellness Survey. (In North America, the willingness to pay more was a bit lower, at 54 percent of shoppers.)
Meanwhile, regulatory agencies have gained an interest in clamping down on unverifiable claims. In 2013, the Fair Trade Commission ruled that POM Wonderful could not market its pomegranate juice as preventing heart disease, erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer, a decision upheld in January by the U.S. Court of Appeals. And that means companies that want to make a hefty health claim need scientific proof.
The bigger question, then, is whether animal testing is the only way to prove health benefits—and here, says PETA, the the Food and Drug Administration is clear.
In an August 2006 letter to the group, agency officials said “a company can substantiate their proposed claim(s) based on data generated from laboratory and/or clinical studies that were conducted solely on humans.” FDA representatives confirmed that this remains the agency’s policy.
And that, says PETA’s Goodman, is why the group is pushing for more companies to join their cause. While a handful of major companies moved ahead of Barilla on animal testing, including Coke and Pepsi, PETA says it’s currently waiting for responses from three more: behemoth Kraft Foods, which PETA says has backed experiments that involved force-feeding human fecal matter to mice; Kikkoman, the Japanese soy sauce manufacturer, which the group says removed the knees of mice to mimic arthritis; and yogurt leader Danone, which PETA says force-fed monkeys and pigs.
For Kraft, testing on animals is sometimes unavoidable, and when it is, the company follows all required laws, says spokesperson Michael Mullen in an email. Still, he added, the company is “committed to reducing the need for animal testing.”
Kikkoman says it is unaware of a letter from PETA, and Danone were unable to respond to inquiries by press time.
So while your spaghetti may now be animal-testing free, shoppers who are passionate about animal rights issues may want to look into that yogurt, cheese and soy sauce a little more carefully.
UPDATE: After this piece was published, Danone indicated that the company has contacted PETA “to work with them and to eliminate animal testing,” according to Marie-Laurence Pouviel, a spokesperson for Danone Nutricia Research.