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PepsiCo Will Not Use Sweeteners Developed from Fetal Cells, Ending Boycott

by | May 1, 2012

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research

Randall K. O'Bannon, Ph.D.

Taking steps to deflect growing public outcry and end what could have been an economically  painful consumer boycott, soft drink giant PepsiCo has announced that it will not use research from a firm that used human fetal cells to develop new flavor enhancers.

PepsiCo, the world’s second largest soft drink manufacturer, also owns well known brands like Quaker Oats and Frito Lay, had revenues of nearly $58 billion in 2010.

In August of 2010, PepsiCo contracted with a company called Senomyx, intending “to focus on the discovery, development, and commercialization of sweet flavor enhancers and natural high-potency sweeteners with the intent to bring to the marketplace lower-calorie, great tasting PepsiCo beverages” (PepsiCo Release, 8/17/11)

However Senomyx, a San Diego flavor research and development firm, had developed a flavor testing system using cells derived from the kidney of an aborted child.  The original cells came from the lab of a Dutch scientist Alex Van der Eb who first cultured the cell line from those cells in 1972.

Those cells, referred to a HEK293, for “Human Embryonic Kidney,” are widely available from most laboratory supply companies and are used by many research and development firms (blogs.miaminewtimes.com, 3/31/11).

Precisely how Senomyx used the fetal cells is not known. But Gwen Rosenberg, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications for Senomyx, described a sort of “robotic tasting system” to one blogger in which hundreds of rows of square plastic dishes are lined up with each dish containing hundreds of tiny indentations containing a protein. 

Flavors are put into the indentations and the reaction of the proteins charted.  If results are promising, the flavor is tested on living adult human beings (blogs.miaminewtimes.com, 3/31/11). 

Presumably, the “proteins” in the plastic dishes would be the cells derived from the kidneys of the aborted child.  All but seven of the company’s 77 patents refer to the use of HEK293 cells (www.snopes.com, 3/18/12, quoting CBS News).

Pepsi’s initial response to the outcry was to point people to its “Responsible Research Statement,” which claimed that “PepsiCo does not conduct or fund research that utilizes any human tissue or cell lines derived from human embryos,” but it remained unclear whether that applied to outside companies with whom PepsiCo contracted (www.snopes.com, 3/18/12).

PepsiCo’s latest communication is much more direct and definite.  In a letter to Children of God for Life, which originally discovered and publicized the connection, Paul Boykas, PepsiCo’s vice president of global public policy declared that “Senomyx will not use HEK or any other tissues or cell lines derived from human embryos or fetuses for research performed on behalf of PepsiCo” (Christian Newswire, April 30, 2012).

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