So far, researchers using aborted fetal cell lines haven't been able to cure paralysis or reverse the effects of Parkinson's disease, but they may be able to make diet sodas taste better.
PepsiCo has come under intense pressure from pro-life groups for contracting with Senomyx Inc., a San Diego biotech company accused of developing flavor enhancers using cell lines taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus. PepsiCo, the world's second-largest food and beverage business, announced the $30 million deal on its website in August 2010.
The move represents what pro-life advocates describe as a troubling shift in commercial research involving cell lines developed from aborted embryos and fetuses. While research has centered on vaccines and medicines, Senomyx has contracted with companies that make soft drinks, candy, gum and coffee creamers.
After a review of Senomyx's patents in 2011 showed that the company was using the fetal cell line in its research, more than a dozen pro-life groups launched a boycott of Pepsi products that has since spread to 11 nations, including Canada, Poland and Australia, as well as much of Western Europe.
An attempt to bring a resolution on the issue before PepsiCo shareholders for a vote failed after the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled Feb. 28 that the research and development agreement with Senomyx fell under the category of "ordinary business operations."
PepsiCo attorney George A. Schieren said the proposed resolution "deals with matters related to the company's ordinary business operations."
He said these operations "are so fundamental to run a company on a day-to-day basis that they could not be subject to stockholder oversight."
The ruling stunned pro-life advocate Debi Vinnedge, who led a similar effort in 2003 against the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co., which uses aborted fetal cell lines in the manufacture of some vaccines. In that case, the SEC allowed the proxy vote, rejecting Merck's "ordinary business" argument.
"The SEC let us take Merck to task over using fetal cell lines in vaccines, so we're shocked that the SEC would not allow it with something as simple as a flavor enhancer," said Ms. Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life, which fights the use of aborted embryonic and fetal cells in research.
PepsiCo initially declined to comment on the issue, but in the weeks since its SEC victory, the food and beverage giant has contacted pro-life advocates and media to deny the accusations.
Jeff Dahncke, PepsiCo senior director for communications, thanked The Washington Times in an email for "giving us the opportunity to clarify misperceptions and erroneous media reports on the topic."
"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. We clearly communicate this in our Responsible Research Statement on our website," Mr. Dahncke's statement said. "Any research funded by PepsiCo and conducted by Senomyx for PepsiCo must abide by this responsible research statement."
In a statement to LifeNews, Mr. Dahncke also denied speculation that sweeteners developed by Senomyx had been used in the recipe for Pepsi NEXT, a low-calorie cola with 60 percent less sugar than a standard Pepsi. The drink is being launched this week.
Ms. Vinnedge called the PepsiCo denial "pure deception."
She said she found HEK-293, a "human embryo kidney" cell line produced from an aborted fetus in the 1970s, in more than 70 Senomyx patents, all related to flavor enhancers.
"What Pepsi is doing is saying that they're not taking the cells directly from a fetus. Well, that's true, they're taking them from a lab," Ms. Vinnedge said. "They're doing this with semantics to get around what they're really doing."
PepsiCo isn't the only company grappling with the issue.
Nestle and Kraft-Cadbury Adams have contracted in the past with Senomyx, although Ms. Vinnedge said the companies no longer have products in development with Senomyx. Campbell's cut its ties to the company in 2011 after receiving complaints from pro-life advocates.
"We really aren't going after [Nestle and Kraft] like we are with Pepsi because Pepsi is still in the development stages," Ms. Vinnedge said. "They can change it. They can say, 'Let's use a morally responsible cell line.' "
Examples of other cell lines include those developed from animals or insects, she said.
At least one effort to counter the PepsiCo boycott was waged on the online website Care2 PetitionSite. The anonymous organizer called for signatures to support PepsiCo and said the pro-life boycott was "a smear campaign."
"Despite the ethically acceptable and noncontroversial nature of this research, a pro-life activist ... has launched a boycott of PepsiCo., a ridiculous action against a company which is spending millions of dollars trying to make its product healthier for consumers when most producers of soft drinks are perfectly comfortable using high fructose corn syrup," said the petition, which gathered 51 signatures before being closed.
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