CLAIM: Flavor enhancers made from aborted fetal tissue are being added to food products without consumers’ knowledge.
THE FACTS: Biotechnology companies have frequently used fetal cell lines in their research and testing, but flavor enhancers used in food products do not contain any tissue from aborted fetuses. A years-old misconception about the use of fetal cell lines in research has resurfaced online with the false claim that food manufacturers give customers products made from fetal tissue. The claim was further amplified when a Texas state senator this month introduced a bill calling for the labeling of such foods. But there is no basis for these claims, according to the FDA, which said in an emailed statement that it would not condone this and was “not aware of any company ever putting fetal cells into food products.”
“There are no conditions under which the FDA would consider human fetal tissue to be safe or legal for human or animal consumption,” the statement read. The agency added that it has never had to take enforcement action for this violation.
The false claim originates from the fact that many biotechnology companies, including some in the food industry, have used fetal cell lines in a research and testing capacity. Cell lines, which are key to medical research, are cloned copies of cells from the same source that have been adapted to grow continuously in labs. They are very commonly used in pharmaceutical research and vaccine development.
For years, people have criticized and misrepresented the fact that the biotechnology company Senomyx used the HEK293 cell line — or Human Embryonic Kidney 293 — in research involving flavor development. The HEK293 cell line was first established in the early 1970s using cells from a kidney of a fetus.
However, numerous news reports over the years have clarified that the company didn’t put fetal cells into any food products given to consumers. Senomyx was acquired in 2018 by the Swiss company Firmenich, which did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment. But as a Senomyx official explained in a 2011 interview with Miami New Times, the company used the cell lines in “basically a robotic tasting system” that isolated human taste receptors in the form of proteins to test out how they reacted to flavors. If a protein reacted positively to a flavor, the company would move on to further taste tests.
Frank Graham, a professor emeritus in the departments of biology and pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University, developed the HEK-293 cell line in the 1970s. He told the AP via email that the cells “would be used in tests for various properties of compounds to be used as flavor enhancers” but “would not themselves be incorporated into beverages or other foods.”
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.