In the spotlight

Alternatives to animal testing

Fewer animal tests are now necessary for food research, thanks to the development of alterative methods and the innovative use of knowledge by researchers from Wageningen University & Research.

Through these innovations Wageningen University & Research has been able to replace 80 per cent of standard animal tests with an animal cruelty-free alternative. The goal is to make animal testing for research into safe and healthy human food a thing of the past.

Why are animal tests used in food research?

Animal testing is still frequently necessary – and sometimes required – to determine food safety, nutrition and the digestibility of ingredients. For example, tests are conducted to determine if mussels intended for human consumption contain harmful substances created by algae that can lead to illness or to see if people can develop allergic reactions to specific proteins in food. Test animals are comparable to canaries in the coalmine, warning about situations that are dangerous for humans. Especially in food safety research, the use of test animals is still legally required.

Food research covers everything that you take in via your mouth and, after it reaches your stomach and intestines, is absorbed into your blood and subsequently reaches your other organs. ‘So it’s not about substances that can be absorbed by the skin or lungs,’ clarifies Lonneke van der Geest, molecular biologist and business unit manager of Toxicology, Novel foods and Agrochains at RIKILT, a department of Wageningen University & Research.

- Unfortunately, your cookie settings do not allow videos to be displayed. - check your settings

Performing an animal test is only allowed if there are no alternatives or if the test is legally compulsory while permission from the committee for animal experimentation is also required. Rats and mice are primarily used for food safety research but for animal feed research livestock is more often employed.

Disadvantages of animal testing

Animal testing has several disadvantages. It can cause suffering in animals and is relatively expensive. Furthermore, if you want to know the effect of a substance on humans, results must be extrapolated from animals to humans. Research at Wageningen University & Research shows that experiments on animals can often be avoided. Testing the safety and nutrition of food can thereby be made more animal-friendly and inexpensive and provide more specific information about effects on humans.

Lonneke van der Geest, alternatives to animal testing
Animal-free tests are often cheaper and more specific
Lonneke van der Geest, business unit manager Toxicology, Novel foods and Agrochains at RIKILT

Animal cruelty-free research

The Dutch government is working toward non-animal testing research and wants the Netherlands to be a world leader in animal cruelty-free innovation by 2025. The use of animal testing for legally mandated safety tests for chemical substances, food ingredients, pesticides and human and animal medicines can be reduced step by step and disappear before 2025 while retaining current safety levels, according to the Netherlands National Committee for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes (NCad) in the report ‘Transition to Non-Animal Testing Research’, which they presented at the end of 2016. Much further research is necessary to reach this goal, especially where it is still difficult to find alternatives, such as measuring the effects of substances during pregnancy.

Wageningen University & Research has devoted itself to realising this ambition by working toward the replacement, reduction and refinement of animal testing. Great strides have already been taken according to Van der Geest as ‘ten years ago hardly any alternatives were used.’

Examples of alternatives

Non-Animal test for mussels
Mussels and other shellfish and crustaceans can contain toxins from algae, which can cause diarrhoea in humans. RIKILT developed a chemical test by which this substance can be detected and has become the European standard.

Digital test animal
A computer model can calculate and predict what effects a substance will have on the human body, where it accumulates and what the effect of the concentration of this substance is in the blood or an organ. It works the other way round as well. If you know how much a cell can tolerate, then you can calculate the effect of a specific dose. This way the safety of promising medications or other new substances can be determined faster and at lower cost.

Organ on a microchip (see photo below)
The digestion of food and other substances can also be simulated in cultured cells and artificial tissues such as intestinal cells on a microscope slide over which liquids flow just like in the intestines. This is also possible with heart, liver and nerve cells.

Organ on a chip, alternative to animal testing

In 1997 the Netherlands was already setting the trend when it stopped animal testing for cosmetic products such as makeup, toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant. In 2004 the entire EU followed suit and since 2013 imports of products involving animal testing from outside the EU stopped. This also led to a major increase in alternatives, among them 3D skin models.