Foodies Find Common Cause with Anti-Abortion Activists

By Keith Kloor | February 11, 2013 10:22 am

What happens when the ideological agenda of crunchy granola food activists intersects with the religious agenda of anti-abortion activists?  You get this (recycled, bizarro) nonsense from a Seattle-based organic food advocacy website:

Biotech companies have been using aborted human fetal cells for testing the effectiveness of different flavoring agent in their products. Last year the news came out that a biotech company in CA called Senomyx has been using aborted human fetal cells in foods and beverages.

A pro-life watchdog group called Children of God for Life (CGL) has been calling the marketing scheme of the biotech companies deceptive and use of aborted human fetal cells unethical and immoral. Debi Vinnedge, the director of CGL in an interview mentions that why the biotech doesn’t come out clean and tell the public that they are using human embryonic kidney cells (HEK-293) taken from aborted babies to produce human taste receptors?

I don’t have the time or patience to deconstruct this latest bit of scare-mongering propaganda circulating on the fringes of the biotech-averse food movement. Fortunately, Matthew Herper at Forbes dove earnestly into the loopy story a year ago, when it was getting traction. As he wrote, “The fetus-derived cell line we’re talking about” is a 35-year-old technology” that is “used in the development of drugs and vaccines.” Moreover, this biotech flavoring experiment is not some dastardly scheme. Rather, Herper explained:

There’s a huge public health upside to what Synomyx is doing. They are developing flavors that mimic sugar, salt, and also savory tastes. I’m a guy who doesn’t drink soda because of the health risk involved. But replacing ingredients that can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer strikes me as a useful endeavor. The creation of a medicine like Pulmozyme for cystic fibrosis, which the Children of God For Life says also used HEK cells, seems even more worthwhile. So do the vaccines from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline that the group also opposes.

I don’t think many people in science or in the drug business would think of using HEK cells as “using aborted fetuses.” To a very large extent, the HEK 293 line is being caught up in the embryonic stem cell politics of a decade later. But I can see how people who think fetal tissue should never be used in any medicine would see a problem here. I can also understand how a lot of biotechnology can seem a little scary and Frankenstein-like, because it emphasizes how malleable and manipulable our basic parts are. The fact that we can so manipulate biology challenges our view of ourselves as spiritual beings in control of our own destinies.

He’s absolutely right on that score. This is a front in the GMO wars that is neglected by biotech advocates. It’s tricky terrain. How do you address widespread unease of biotechnology without resorting to ridicule or the anti-science label? That’s a challenge that’s needs to be taken on.

UPDATE: As CBS reported last year, “it’s important to note that no part of a human kidney cell are ever a part of Senomyx’s taste enhancers or any finished food products.”

[This is the image accompanying a related article at a “wellness” site]

 

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    We can spend a lot of time trying to explain what goes on in the lab and how the work is done. But it is complicated, and we are battling a misinformation machine that willfully distorts reality into easily-digestible 140 character slogans of fear.

    They’ve also aligned with anti-vaxxers now due to a fear campaign of GMO vaccines made in cell culture.

    I wish I knew what worked to counter the popular misinformers. But I really am stumped. They are pretty resistant to criticism and facts, a lot like superweeds.

    I hope it’s true what I saw last week: that we may be getting a Science Media Centre http://www.sciencemediacenter.org/usa/ . You can’t really stop cranks from getting a platform–they are great at crappy reports and press releases. But maybe we can be better at more quickly providing the actual story and qualified scientists to respond.

    • purplelibraryguy

      Part of the problem is a fundamental political one: It’s not so much that they don’t trust scientists. It’s that they don’t trust large corporations. Anyone speaking in favour of the activities of those large corporations becomes suspect.

      And the thing is, they have very good reasons not to trust large corporations; large corporations are by legal definition untrustworthy; they have a fiduciary duty to be untrustworthy if it will generate profits. And in practice, this happens very very often, from “tobacco is perfectly safe” to “there is no such thing as global warming”, with hundreds of others in between. Much of the information coming from large corporations about their activities consists of advertising, PR spin, and downright lies.

      But this snares perfectly respectable scientists who may be working for these companies, or who see the work of scientists working for companies being maligned and defend them against what they see as anti-science. Scientists see themselves as defending science, but the people attacking see them as apologists for lying megacorporations. Separating these things is a challenge. Perhaps one might argue along the lines “I won’t say GlaxoSmithKline (for example) wouldn’t do (evil thing X) if it would make them a profit, and indeed they are actually doing (evil thing Y) which is much worse. But in this case, they have no need to; the science involved is actually quite innocuous and does not require (evil thing X) in order to work–and after all, (evil thing X) would be pretty controversial and get them bad publicity; they’re not going to do it just for the heck of it.”

      Such an approach might be more convincing than a bland reassurance and explanation of the science, which might leave the subtext impression that the scientist is attempting to persuade one that the corporations involved are pure as the driven snow, which would conflict with knowledge they already have and so undermine their belief in the explanation.

      • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

        I’ve seen that done–and immediately the cry of “you’re just a shill for X” comes out anyway. No matter how many times the academics say that’s not true.

        But another problem is that individual scientists don’t have the time to monitor and swat all the crap. It is like chronic lie-arrhea.

        Academics don’t get any support for outreach for the most part, and sometimes it even can hurt them in department or grant reviews. And some of them even get personal threats and don’t want to put their families at risk. I can’t blame them for that.

      • jh

        large corporations are by legal definition untrustworthy; they have a fiduciary duty to be untrustworthy if it will generate profits.

        False. Corporations and their shareholders do not benefit from being “untrustworthy” nor to they have a “fiduciary duty” to do so. You are propagating a myth that’s every bit as insidious and destructive as myths about vaccines, GM foods, and global warming.

        After the Deepwater Horizon spill BP’s stock lost 1/3 of it’s value. Shareholders forfeited two quarters of dividends and suffered a 50% dividend cut thereafter. Total losses for shareholders are about 36%, excluding foregone dividend increases. Please explain how BP’s poor safety practices resulted in a benefit to shareholders, the company, or it’s directors? How is it that “by legal definition” BP benefited it’s shareholders by not complying with safety regulations?

        What about Diamond Foods? A year or so ago it’s stock price plunged from $90 to $20 – nearly 80% – after significant accounting irregularities were exposed. How did this benefit the company or its shareholders?

        Corporations have a fiduciary duty to operate within the laws of all jurisdictions where they do business, as well as to be honest with shareholders about the state of their business. To do otherwise is to place both the company and its shareholders at risk for substantial losses.

        Occasionally, some people within corporations recognize that, by lying in the short term, they can create profits for themselves. But the reality is that most people in most corporations work hard to operate legally and honestly.

        Corporations that survive for any length of time do so because they operate openly, honestly, and within legal limits. Furthermore, they must provide beneficial services or products, or they simply don’t last (ever hear of Kodak?)

        Financial ignorance is at least as large of a problem as scientific ignorance.

        • purplelibraryguy

          Not false. Parse my sentence. “. . . if it will generate profits.”

          Sometimes being untrustworthy generates profits, sometimes it doesn’t. True, when it doesn’t, they act trustworthy instead. But the notion that this is all or even a vast majority of the time is foolish Pollyanna nonsense.

          And sometimes unethical behaviour is profitable but has a strong downside risk. In the case of BP it would appear that risk was poorly estimated–but the fact remains that BP saved money by skimping on safety measures, both at that particular rig and presumably at many others, based in good part on the assumption that the cost of any accident would not be borne in full by the company but rather much of it would consist of externalities. And for all the damage you cite to the company, that assumption was nonetheless true.

          But come now. Tell me how lying for decades about the health impacts of tobacco was all for the personal gain of individual executives rather than for the general gain of the tobacco companies. Tell me about how the systematic underplaying of often fatal risks from their products by the entire pharmaceutical industry is all about one or two people profiting individually.

          “Corporations that survive for any length of time do so because they operate openly, honestly, and within legal limits”–are you for real? How old are you, son? Can I sell you a bridge, perhaps? Or maybe some Collateralized Debt Obligations?

          In fact, most of the largest corporations have large numbers of fines, indictments, convictions, and/or investigations under their belt for practices of one sort or another which are large scale and were not halted after whatever regulatory body caught them. The only reason the penalties aren’t enough to bring the businesses to a grinding halt is due to regulatory capture–they get slaps on the wrist because the regulators supposedly prosecuting them used to work for them (and in many cases will come back to work for them again in the future). As they have things arranged, however, they lose less from continuing the illegal practices and paying whatever minimal penalties end up accruing than by cleaning up their act. Generally unless the events involved are extremely dramatic (a la BP), they have little impact on their reputations because they do not make the news.

          • jh

            “most of the largest corporations have large numbers of fines, indictments, convictions…”

            Name five.

            OTOH, almost every state, county, and city government, the Federal government, school districts, port authorities, military installations and other public entities have convictions, indictments, fines, and litigation pending against them.

            “lying for decades about the health impacts of tobacco”

            You claimed “all large corporations” engage in this behavior. So far, you’ve managed one example.

          • purplelibraryguy

            Name five that don’t. I notice meanwhile that you still are terrible at parsing sentences. I said “by legal definition”, which is to say their duty as defined in their charters and oft-repeated by many CEOs and so forth is to make profit for the shareholders, largely regardless of all other considerations. Some, I suppose, may not actually do that. Certainly some seem to operate more for the benefit of insider executives than actual shareholders. But I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a story of a large corporation which had something to gain by unethical behaviour such as lying or creating an externality, and chose to lose money by doing the right thing. By all means give me some examples.
            But I don’t think I’ll be bothering to respond to them. There isn’t much point discussing with someone whose idea of argument is constructing strawmen and insisting that while his vague blanket statements must be taken at face value, anyone who disagrees with him can only be considered credible if he files a thousand page essay listing the misdemeanours of each individual company. Your tactics are clever but all you are doing is engaging in clever tactics. No doubt you often “win” arguments with clever tactics, but such prestidigitation doesn’t get anyone closer to the truth.

      • jh

        And in practice, this happens very very often, from “tobacco is perfectly safe” to “there is no such thing as global warming”

        “Hundreds”? Really? Please name five other instances where five corporations have “denied” proven science.

        Please name five corporations that have claimed in the last year “there is no such thing as global warming”.

        There are over 5000 companies listed on the NASDQ and NYSE alone – that’s not counting tens of thousands more trading on other major exchanges throughout the world, US pink sheets, and privately held corporations.

        Your generalization is something akin to saying that, because one person suffered from a side effect due to a vaccine, all vaccines are untrustworthy.

        • purplelibraryguy

          Um, the two examples I gave just happened to be cases of science denial. I meant them as examples of the more general practice of corporations lying for advantage, thus leading people to distrust their statements. This general practice is very very common. Where I live there’s a stock exchange which for decades was dominated by penny mining stocks most of which were heavily manipulated for the profit of insiders; pump-and-dump schemes were more common than actual viable companies. This is in Canada, not some third world country. Then there is the broader case of advertising, which rarely says anything remotely true or relevant. And yet this is the default case for people receiving communications from a corporate source. Overall, I stand by the generalization–people have very good reason not to trust information coming from corporate sources. Sure, it could be true–but they have no way of telling.

          Anytime you have an information source which will tell you the truth if will look good, but will tell you a lie that looks good instead if the truth wouldn’t, you don’t really have an information source at all. They will say the exact same thing no matter what the truth actually is, so their statements are effectively null. Say you want to know whether the reactor is leaking contaminated water; there’s a 90% chance it isn’t. You ask the corporation that runs the reactor. Now if it isn’t, they’ll say it isn’t. If it is, they’ll still say it isn’t. Well, there’s a 90% chance they’re telling the truth, but you still can’t trust them and you get no information by asking them.

          And no, corporations don’t themselves claim there is no such thing as global warming. But the money has been tracked–corporations donate to “think tanks” and other PR foundations, which in turn give money to phoney researchers and hype their evidence-free non-peer-reviewed articles. The Koch brothers are particularly active in this stuff, and Exxon has given a good deal of money to the cause although there are indications they may have thought better of it in the last couple of years.

          • jh

            most of which were heavily manipulated for the profit of insiders; pump-and-dump schemes were more common

            The VSE was one of the developed world’s worst regulated stock exchanges and the TSE venture isn’t much better. I’ve seen manipulation there first hand.

            Nonetheless, even in Canada’s wild west of oil and mining, most companies are making a good faith effort. Most stocks aren’t, as you claim, “heavily manipulated for the profit of insiders.”

            In the 1920’s in the US, most people believed that there was a “syndicate” that “chose” which stocks would be the big winners. Like your claims of widespread fraud, the syndicate was a myth.

            But the money has been tracked

            Exxon and the Koch Bros is all you have? Two corporations doesn’t support your presumption that all “large corporations” are “by legal definition untrustworthy”.

            I conclude that all purplelibraryguys are untrustworthy.

      • Buddy199

        It’s hilarious that the same crunchies who don’t trust evil big corporations eagerly put their faith in big government bureacrats, for instance the type who were completely asleep at the switch when the sub-prime meltdown hit.

        • purplelibraryguy

          It would be hilarious. Except most of them don’t. Oh, sure, many like social programs, and wish government regulators, well, regulated. But that doesn’t mean they trust them.

        • Nullius in Verba

          Only some evil big corporations. Evil big corporations that sell organic vegetables, or wind turbines, or carbon credits, they’re absolutely fine. They’ll complain about the Koch’s, but not a word about George Soros or Al Gore or John Kerry.

          It’s all Marxist-inspired nonsense, of course. Corporations consist of people, who associate together to produce a product people want, in exchange for their living. But thinking of them as a label depersonalises them, a first step towards dehumanising and demonising them. The same people who unthinkingly destroy a corporation then cry in sympathy over the jobs that are lost as poor people are thrown out of work. The connection between the two is invisible to them – the corporation gets the blame again.

          When people bend the rules, it’s generally not for the sake of profits. Most executives are exactly as willing to lie to the shareholders (who are also mostly ordinary savers and pension fund members) as they are to the general public. What motivates them is not profit, but their own jobs. It’s the thought of how they’re going to support their families, pay the mortgage. That’s what drives them to lie. But those are rare and desperate circumstances. Mostly people don’t lie if they don’t have to – they’d not survive long in business if they did. We judge from the few cases that hit the headlines, not the trillions of honest transactions that are the norm.

          But ‘evil big corporations’ are just a mask they put on other human beings, to hide from themselves what they are doing to them. Governments are masks, too, only this time to disguise who is paying for it.

          They often don’t realise that the person behind the mask is themselves.

    • Keith Kloor

      Glad to see that some folks read the entire linked-to item from that Seattle website. Was wondering if that might prompt some discussion of the anti-vaxx intersection.

      • jh

        I didn’t read the linked item. I live in Seattle. I’m sure it’s all too true.

  • Melissa

    Not to be pedantic, but while there is some intersection, foodies and the crunchy set are not the same thing and are frequently at odds with each other (see The Foie Gras Wars, molecular gastronomy embracing all kinds of chemicals, etc.).

  • http://twitter.com/WhatTheLee Laurie Lee

    How bizarre! But to answer your question, I think the unease about biotech is addressable if it is not seen as a “war.” If someone stepped-up and offered some respect instead of name-calling, I think actual conversations could take place.

  • Rene Musa

    No-sense, Complete no-sense

    Rene
    http://www.womens-choice.co.za

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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