Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fetal Cells in Soda Pop Research? Really? Is American Business That Out of Touch?

It has come to my attention that Pepsi is being boycotted by pro life groups for using fetal cells. The press releases have been carefully crafted to give the impression that Pepsi is actually putting fetal cells in their products without actually saying so. They are wording it with a brilliant ambiguity that would have made Joseph Goebbels green with envy. They are claiming quite truthfully that Pepsi is using fetal cells "in the development of artificial sweeteners".

Needless to say this has resulted in a firestorm of hysterics.

Do not confuse what I'm about to say as approval of using fetal cells for these kinds of purposes. In fact I find it morally repugnant, but it also doesn't help the cause if what we stand for is histrionics or ignorance, so in the interest of full disclosure, Pepsi products do not contain human fetal cells. Don't run around telling people they do. This is the information age. A lie like that will not stand and it will just make all of us look stupid. It wouldn't be the first time the Pro-Life movement has tarnished the legitimacy of it's position by deliberately spreading misinformation. If this strategy worked the ends might justify the means, but it doesn't. It just makes us all look like ignorant crackpots.

Here's what's actually going on...

Pepsi is partnered with Semonyx, a company that uses fetal cells in testing. I know this might sound unlikely, but this company has probably found a way to use living cells to determine if a given compound contains certain flavor "signatures" (for lack of a better word) that these cells are "programmed" to recognize. This allows them to test literally thousands of compounds, in this case artificial sweeteners, in a very short period of time.

This is not a verified fact. The company has never outright admitted to using fetal tissue cells to test Pepsi products, but neither have they denied it and they have released a wealth of statements strongly indicating that this is the case.

Many companies use these fetal kidney cells, called HEK293 cells, for a variety of product testing purposes. They are a favorite of industrial labs because they have been virally modified. They are very easy to work with and extremely hardy. They live can live pretty much forever in a jar. Human Embryonic Kidney line 293 is between 35 and 50 years old.

None of this is any skin off my butt. I hate Pepsi, but I do find this sudden clamor for a boycott somewhat suspect. It's unclear why Pepsi has been singled out. Semonyx has ties to Coca Cola and Nestle as well.

It is also important to note while this use of human remains is clearly reprehensible, HEK293 has been used in the development of drugs for a LONG time and has contributed to countless medical advances (some of them actually meaningful) which is a much more morally ambiguous function.

Semonyx tries to justify this moral gap by claiming they are also saving lives by reducing the amount of salt and sugar in consumer foods. This is bunk. I'm sure it helps Semonyx execs sleep at night thinking they are engaged in some kind of noble struggle against diabetes or childhood obesity, but we already have a variety of artificial sweeteners and they've done nothing to reverse this trend. This is the exploitation of a dead child in the name of making money on a tastier soda pop, and there's just no moral ambiguity in that.