Originally published on FoodUnfolded.com in August 2020.
It might come as a surprise, but some foods or ingredients are tested on animals. Moving away from testing food on animals has been a critical concern for consumers, scientists and governments alike, but is this really possible? If so, what are the alternatives?
We interviewed Maastricht University’s nutritional scientist and food law expert, Dr Alie de Boer, to understand what our options might be. Alie recently participated in a European expert group that examined the various methods that can replace animal testing in food research.
Madhura: Thanks for joining us Alie! Let’s start with the basics. What is the connection between animal testing and food research?
Alie: Animal tests are used in food research mainly to ensure that the food we consume is safe. These tests try to identify whether continuous exposure to a certain food will cause any adverse effects for consumers.
It is not always practically possible to do this testing outside a lab. For instance, imagine we want to find out what happens if someone drinks one glass of cola every day, throughout their life. It’s almost impossible to conduct this experiment on a person, because it would violate research ethical guidelines regarding tests on human subjects. But it’s much easier to conduct such tests using a model.
There are in vitro models, computational models, and there are also animal models. Some animals’ anatomies, organ structures, and ways of absorbing food are quite similar to ours. Because of this, the way animals react to a certain substance can be reflective of how humans would react to it.
Madhura: So, how likely is it that the snack I purchased at the supermarket yesterday was tested on animals?
Alie: That’s difficult to answer. It is quite clear that testing food on animals is done in the least possible amount. But, for certain ingredients such as genetically modified products or some novel foods, animal tests are required. So, if your product has these as ingredients, you know that it was tested on animals. While labels (in the EU) indicate whether genetically modified ingredients have been used in the product, novel food ingredients are not indicated. Therefore, there is no sure shot way of knowing whether a product has been tested on animals or not.
We also know that quite a lot of additives are tested on animals because they are often manmade. In such cases, animal tests are really a way to gather information on specific substances. But that’s not to say that it’s always done because we see that the food industry is shifting away from animal models as much as possible.
Madhura: And what does the European food law have to say about animal testing?
Alie: The European General Food Law actually doesn’t say anything about testing. There is, however, a Europe-wide directive on animal testing which is applicable across all sectors, including food. This directive aims to replace, reduce, and refine animal testing.
In some cases, animal tests are a legal requirement. For certain substances such as pesticides, it is important to test for chronic toxicity and it’s very hard to discuss chronic toxicity without help from animal models. So, when the law prescribes a chronic toxicity test, the results must be demonstrated via a 90-day toxicity test wherein animals are exposed to a certain compound for 90 days.
In other cases, animal tests are part of a guidance document that’s not legally binding. But we do see that companies really stick to the guidance documents, as they could end up getting into trouble with national authorities if they try to deviate from it. So sometimes it’s a legal requirement, sometimes an implicit legal requirement, and sometimes it’s just done because we’ve always done it like that.
Madhura: Based on the current developments in science, is it legally and ethically possible to not test foods or their ingredients on animals?
Alie: At the moment, there’s definitely sufficient room to reduce the number of animals used for tests, but I wouldn’t say it’s possible to completely get rid of animal testing yet. I think there are many positive developments taking place in the field. Some methods we might have at our disposal in the future are likely to even be better than animal models.
Madhura: Could you walk us through some of the alternative ways that can be used instead of animal testing?
Alie: Yeah, sure. There is in vitro testing where you focus on the effect on only one type of cell that you’re going to measure in the lab. But in vitro testing is quite limited because it’s very difficult to integrate multiple cell types into one test.
Another interesting method is the adverse outcome pathways method, or the AOPs method. In this method, you look at the chemical structure of a compound and identify similar compounds that are already being used in food production. Then, you assume that because the two compounds are structurally so similar, they will produce the same consequences biologically.
Then, there is also something known as the weight of evidence approach where scientists evaluate what they currently know about a substance and what they don’t. It is a system where we partially acknowledge that we cannot know everything.
Besides these methods, there are some very awesome ways of testing that are being developed as we speak. One such method is the ‘organs on a chip’ method where you integrate different types of cells on one chip and then do the in vitro work. It sounds really weird, but it’s actually just a lab-made liver or a lab-made lung that is used for carrying out tests! We can even have organs on chips that are connected to each other so they kind of resemble an animal, or even better, a human!
Madhura: All of these sounds really cool. What would you say are the biggest obstacles for scientists to move away from animal testing and adopt some of these alternative methods?
Alie: While everyone wants to get rid of animal testing, it’s also the thing we know the best and are comfortable with. So, the general outlook is ‘why change something that works?’
Even though testing food on animals is very expensive, there are a few reasons why companies continue to use them: for one, companies aren’t given many options if they are to continue developing new ingredients or products; and second, they may be faced with long term risks related to consumer safety, market approval, and reputation.
Madhura: I can imagine! I have one last question. For some of our readers, this might be the first time that they realize that foods are tested on animals and feel concerned about the situation. Would you like to say something about this?
Alie: I would say, first of all, don’t worry too much because a lot of the compounds that are in your food probably haven’t been tested on animals. And those that have been tested have been tested for your own safety. There are grants from governments and private organisations that are supporting the development of non-animal methods. Such projects deserve support and attention. If you’re opposed to animal testing, I would definitely urge you to make sure that you try to support organizations that are actively trying to move away from animal tests in a safe and scientifically sound way.