Are kidney cells from aborted human fetuses used in popular food products? No, that's not true: The false claim is based on the use of HEK 293 cells in taste research by the Senomyx company, which was purchased by Firmenich in 2018. The laboratory-grown cell line is used in a wide variety of research and has been used for decades. In 1973, Frank Graham cultured cells from human embryonic kidneys (HEK) to generate an immortalized cell line by introducing DNA from an adenovirus to create a new cell line.
The recycled claim that kidney cells are added to foods has been circulating, in one form or another, on social media since at least 2012 and was previously debunked by Lead Stories in November 2019. In an August 23, 2022, email to Lead Stories, Firmenich Taste & Beyond Global Communications Director Avril Pendergast-Fischer said, "Neither Firmenich products nor Senomyx products have ever contained any human cell or material." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed, in an email to Lead Stories, that there's no evidence aborted human fetus cells are added to commercial foods.
The claim re-appeared in a Facebook post on August 11, 2022. This is what the unidentified person in the 71-second video says:
Research the word Senomyx. OK. Senomyx is a transnational company that creates flavor enhancement for products for transnational companies like Pepsi, Kraft, Nestlé, Campbell's. And what they've been doing is that they grab kidney cells from human aborted fetuses. So, they grab these kidney cell lines [speaks in Spanish here] and in laboratory they replicate these cells and they put them in all your products. [speaks in Spanish again] What products are we talking about? Well, we're talking about your Gatorade. Drink some aborted babies. Yes, seriously. We're talking about Lays chips. Yeah, that's why they taste so good, don't they? Pepsi products, all right? Tropicana juices. Dasani water. Minute Maid. We have to not consume anything from these companies and tell them that we're not participating in their insane ritual.
This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Aug 23 15:39:50 2022 UTC)
In an August 23, 2022, email, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokesperson said:
There is no evidence to suggest that there are aborted human fetal kidney cells used in food products. For information about the FDA's food additive process and other programs, please see: Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors | FDA.
Circulating since 2012
The claim against Pepsi and the other companies has been made repeatedly over the years since at least 2012, and it is tied to Senomyx's use of HEK 293 cells. However, saying that cells from aborted fetuses are directly used in the company's products -- or those of Kraft, Nestlé and Campbell's -- is false.
In an April 26, 2012, letter to the executive director of Children of God for Life, an organization with the goal of ending "the use of aborted children in scientific research and manufacturing," Pepsi Co. said the following:
We can assure you that PepsiCo does not conduct or fund research - including research performed by third parties - that utilizes any human tissue or cell lines derived from embryos or fetuses. Furthermore, Senomyx does not use HEK cells or any other tissues or cell lines derived from human embryos or fetuses for research performed on behalf of PepsiCo.
Also, in March of 2012, PepsiCo. issued this statement:
There are no stem cells, cell lines derived from embryos or fetuses, or fetal tissues in any PepsiCo products. The integrity of our products is critical to PepsiCo, and we use only ingredients that meet all FDA and other regulatory standards.
In addition, a PepsiCo spokesperson provided this updated response to Lead Stories in an August 23, 2022, email:
At one time PepsiCo did have a relationship with Senomyx exploring the development of new sweeteners and flavor enhancers. PepsiCo's commercial relationship with Senomyx has ended and we do not use any Senomyx ingredients in our products. As always, PepsiCo absolutely does not conduct or fund research that utilizes any human tissue or cell lines derived from embryos or fetuses.
In its own August 23, 2022, email, Nestlé acknowledged that this claim "has been circulating online for [a] considerable time now":
- We do not use any flavor compounds manufactured from or identified using HEK cells in any of our products worldwide.
- We do not conduct any research using human embryonic or fetal cells, including from aborted fetuses. We do not use HEK cells in our research.
- Any suggestions that we do use these types of ingredients or engage in such activities are false.
Campbell's also responded to a Lead Stories query. In an August 23, 2022, email, Director of External Communications James F. Regan said:
This is false, as no products were ever developed from the research done by Senomyx for Campbell. At one time, Campbell had a research relationship with Senomyx focused on sodium reduction. We terminated the relationship in March 2011.
Lead Stories also reached out to Kraft. Their response will be added when they reply.