Animal rights activists are warning consumers that foods advertised as healthy might have something else surprising in common: animal testing. What’s more, there’s almost no way to know for sure.
Experimenting on animals has become more common for food companies in the last decade, says Justin Goodman, director of the laboratory investigations department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group actively engaged in ending animal testing. And those tests, he says, are “almost exclusively to establish marketing claims.”
As reported by National Geographic earlier this month, pasta company Barilla banned animal testing after being criticized for contracting out experiments to assess whether consumption of durum wheat boosted omega-3s. The purpose of the study was to try and establish a link between eating pasta and “the prevention of chronic-degenerative diseases,” Luca Virginio, chief communication officer of Barilla, said in an email.
Those kinds of claims have “proliferated,” says Laura MacCleery, director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “There’s a huge marketing value to companies to try to make products seem healthier,” she says. A 2010 GAO report estimated that about 10 percent of food labels in U.S. grocery stores made claims that legally required some degree of scientific proof. CSPI does not oppose all animal testing, and MacCleery noted that “It makes sense that they might do some animal testing for some kinds of claims, but it’s hard because health claims would be for human diseases, so I think you’d need human studies.”
Those health claims may be the only indication shoppers have that their food may have been tested on animals, but it’s not a given. There is no legal requirement that food companies disclose their use of animal testing, nor are there any certifications or regulations that could communicate they had not. And while the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that foods be “labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading,” phrases like “cruelty free” have no legal definition.
“There’s no accountability on this issue,” says Goodman.
While PETA is currently reaching out to major food companies to discourage the use of animal testing, Goodman says the organization is also considering plans to develop a cruelty-free food-labeling program, similar to those currently used for cosmetics and household products.
Two private labeling programs inform consumers when cosmetics and household products have been produced without animal tests. The international Leaping Bunny certification program requires companies to prove they do not make use of animal testing. PETA also administers a “cruelty-free” program encompassing 1,700 companies, which requires companies to pledge they will not perform, pay for, or allow animal testing for their products.
The European government goes further. An EU-wide ban on animal testing in cosmetics went into effect in 2013. But animal testing for manufactured food products remains unaddressed by the law, and—as in the U.S.—there is no private label to alert consumers that their food might have been tested on animals.
“People who are … eating an animal-free diet would be shocked,” says Goodman. “Food they are buying that doesn’t have animal products in it might have been used to kill an animal in a laboratory.”
Independent journalist Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating, a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, and a contributing political editor at Rodale’s Organic Life. Follow her @tmmcmillan.