Kikkoman, the Japanese soy-product manufacturing company known for their ubiquitous bottles of soy sauce, is on blast this month for conducting violent experiments on animals while testing their products. PETA, the animal rights organization, published an investigation of the company's history of animal testing and found multiple examples of experiments where animals are mutilated and killed for the testing of soy products. PETA is now petitioning other companies to end animal testing and calling for a boycott of Kikkoman products.
Kikkoman's research studies, which were published as recently as August 2015, detail the kind of animal testing that would make anyone's stomach turn: force-feeding fermented soy milk to rats; giving rabbits high-cholesterol diets to induce heart disease (then killing them); pumping soy sauce into rats' stomachs, before decapitating them and studying their brains.
Kikkoman, which declined to comment for this article, says the testing is necessary for product safety. A statement on the company's Facebook says that Kikkoman is "committed to the safest and highest quality ingredients" and pledged to "strive for the most compassionate and humane approach possible" during animal tests. But animal testing itself, as a means of food safety or regulation, is actually a fairly outdated form of research, according to Suzanna Harmon and Marisa McDonald, animal rights attorneys who co-own the firm McDonald & Harmon.
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It's difficult to know exactly how common animal testing is in the food industry today, because the way the FDA collects data excludes certain types of animal testing. "Most information about animal testing that is readily available is technically wrong, because it is based on data collected by the FDA, and the FDA doesn't count rodents nor birds in their count of animals," says Harmon. That's because under the Animal Welfare Act—basically the only law in the United States protecting animals from testing—specifically excludes rodents and birds in its definition of animals. Since rats and other rodents are used heavily in animal research, the FDA's data is confusing and patchy.
Still, Harmon says the use of animal testing spiked in the early 2000s, when food and beverage companies wanted in on the "superfood" movement. Those companies began changing their foods in an attempt to appeal to increasingly more health-conscious consumers, and thus had to do more testing to meet FDA standards, especially in the case of new additives. Every time a product introduces a new ingredient, that ingredient has to be regulated for safety—which, historically, has involved animal testing.
The FDA doesn't require that these tests are done on animals—it's just one form that meets the FDA standards. (Kikkoman is based in Japan, but the FDA requires all companies—foreign or domestic—that "manufacture, process, pack, or hold food for human or animal consumption in the United States" to register with the FDA and meet its standards.) According to Harmon, "any food company that is using new food additives is likely involved in animal testing."
Testing is also required before companies can make health claims about their products, or be deemed safe by the FDA. In some cases, the only way to test these claims is on a living human or animal, since alternative tests don't exist. Some people consider animal testing to be justified in scenarios such as stroke treatment research, where there are no alternatives research models and the test results could offer a great benefit to mankind.
But in Kikkoman's published research, that doesn't seem to be the case. McDonald says it appears that Kikkoman was force-feeding rats to study the physiological effects of fermented soy milk (FSM).
"At the beginning of the study, they state that other studies have suggested the health benefits of FSM, showing that it may promote intestinal tract function, and that it may have antimutagenic, and antioxidant properties," says McDonald. "They then state that, 'despite these recent studies, the general physiological effects of FSM remain unknown.' So, it appears they wanted to study its physiological effects because those have not been tested."
The study focuses on two specific psychological effects: the rats' desires to run on their wheels, and changes in male rats' sexual behavior. Why they chose those particular effects isn't totally clear, but McDonald guesses that "they were testing to see if one of the health benefits of FSM is an increased desire to exercise."
But here's the catch: The rats' responses in sexual behavior and desire to exercise offer a guess, at best, at how humans would respond. It's an unreliable and wholly inconclusive form of testing. A study from 2004, published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that we've gained very little, if anything, from animal testing.
"So why even include this superfluous step at all?" asked McDonald. "This language shows that no matter how much animal testing is done, the results are never surefire indicators of what will happen in humans."
Ben Williamson, PETA's Director of Laboratory Investigations, reiterates that these kind of experiments don't even have a much of a scientific benefit. "They're cruel, they're not required by law, and they are irrelevant to humans," he says.
Since animal testing is only one way to meet the FDA's safety standards, Williamson pointed out that there is a wealth of ethical, humane testing alternatives. For example, there are in vitro human digestive systems, which demonstrate the effect of food on the digestive system. There are also 3D microfluidic cell culture chips that simulate the responses and mechanics of human organs called "organs-on-chips." Both these methods better simulate human physiological response, without the use of human or animal subjects.
PETA has had success in the past convincing other food corporations, like Barilla and Coca-Cola, to cease animal testing. A combination of petitions, boycotts, and overall bad publicity was key in those cases. Williamson says they want Kikkoman to "step into the 21st century and [stop] maiming animals to make marketing claims."
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