The Ethics of “Healthy” Bacon

bacon ethicsThis is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Here’s the start of the story, from ABC Science: ‘Healthy bacon’ patents raise questions

Monsanto has filed patents that cover the feeding of animals soybeans, which have been genetically modified by the company to contain stearidonic acid (SDA), a plant-derived omega-3 fatty acid.

“The invention relates to the enhancement of desirable characteristics in pigs and/or pork products through the incorporation of beneficial fatty acids in animal feed or in animal feed supplements,” reads one patent application….

This story raises a whole slew of ethical issues: from genetic modification of plants (for animal feed), to the patenting of life forms, to contentious health claims (explicit or implied). The ABC story focuses on patenting, but my interest (here) is on the health claims angle. But it turns out the two issues are related, given that (according to the legal experts cited) the patentability of the pigs involved here depends at least in part on whether their meat can be shown to have some positive health effect.

But what will raise eyebrows among nutrition experts (or maybe just anyone with a bit of common sense) is the idea of ‘healthy bacon.’ It’s worth noting, of course, that there’s no smoking-gun quotation from Monsanto, here, claiming that the meat from their innovative pig will actually be healthy. But the headline writer obviously took the bait. The new bacon is intended to have heightened levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and those are supposed to be good for you. So, presto! “Healthy bacon.” Yeah, right.

This, of course, is just a fancier version of a phenomenon we’ve already seen — food companies bragging about the trace vitamins in their sugary cereals, or the calcium in their chocolate milk. The point is not that these claims are false — they’re not — but that they’re misleading. If anyone buys omega-3 bacon because they think it’s going to be good for them (and yes, there will be such people) they will have been misled in a dangerous way. And as new and more sophisticated technology comes to be applied to food, we’re only going to see more of this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no luddite. I’ve nothing against technology. But the food industry (and, surely, regulators) are going to have to adapt to new possibilities and adopt new and more sophisticated understandings of their obligations if they’re going to serve consumers well.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in biotechnology, ethics, genetic modification, health, health claims, labeling, nutrition, science. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Ethics of “Healthy” Bacon

  1. Gord says:

    Sigh. Heaven forbid that we should all just eat in moderation.

    Food created in a lab is not food. It’s never been healthy, it’s not healthy now and it never will be healthy. Can’t we just shove Monsanto, Bayer Cropscience and their ilk off a cliff and go back to eating actual food?

    • Gord:

      Probably a good rule of thumb, but there are most certainly exceptions. And it has to be remembered that many foods not created in labs are also unhealthy.


  2. Anastasia says:

    Chris, is Monsanto trying to get a patent on pigs that have eaten their soybeans? I thought processes couldn’t be patented. It seems like it’d make more sense to feed them omega 3s from another source (yeast, algae, flax, even fish waste) anyway, because I don’t think the omega 3 content of the engineered soybean oil is that high. I suppose it’s to be expected, though. When all you have is a hammer…

    Gord, it’s interesting that you say that “Food created in a lab is not food.” It’s incorrect from a chemical perspective – the enzymes in our digestive systems don’t care where sugars, amino acids, etc come from as long as they can be taken apart. Not that I want to eat nutropaste or something (unless I’m in space, maybe) but appeals to nature just don’t fit reality.

    The statement just doesn’t make any sense from an animal or plant husbandry perspective. The ancestors of most of the foods we eat today are inedible. Most of the modifications weren’t made in labs, but plant and animal breeding are definitely science and they definitely use technology, even before we started using molecular genetics.

    On the Seldom Fools website (pretty cool stuff, btw) I did notice a little error. On the pollination page, it says “the bees don’t go near GM buckwheat.” This is true, because no GM buckwheat exists, to my knowledge.

    • Anastasia:

      It’s hard to tell what Monsanto is up to. The story does say:

      “Monsanto has no plans to take ownership of or sell company-branded omega-3 enriched meat.”

      But really, who knows? Anyway, seems like a long shot for a patent. I can see them patenting the enriched plants. But I can’t imagine (though I’m no expert) a patent on a feeding regimen for pigs.

    • Gord says:

      Whoops, I missed that one, Anastasia. It should be alfalfa. Thank you for the kind words.

  3. John C says:

    When genetic patents were allowed we made a big mistake.
    This policy makes it financially rewarding to create plants and animals not capable of reproducing naturally. We will pay for pooling wiyh mother nature one day…

    • Of course, we had that already before plant patents. (e.g., bananas)

    • Anastasia says:

      John, patented crops can reproduce naturally, except in certain cases like banana that are reproduced with cuttings (also called clones). Patents are a legal restriction, not a biological restriction.

      You might be interested to know that plants have been protected intellectual property (IP) in the US at least since 1930. A history of plant IP as well as ethical issues can be found at ISU’s Bioethics Outreach site in a 3 part series called “Plants, Patents, Property, and Pirates” (1, 2, 3.

      One of the supporting documents for plant IP law in 1930 was a letter written by a plant breeder. He said:

      “A man can patent a mousetrap or copyright a nasty song, but if he gives the world a new fruit that will add millions to the value of the earth’s annual harvests he will be fortunate if he is rewarded so much as having his name connected with the result. Though the surface of the plant experimentation has thus far been only scratched and there is so much immeasurably important work to be done in this line, I would hesitate to advise a young man, no matter how gifted or devoted, to adopt plant breeding as a life work until America takes some action to protect his unquestioned right to some benefit from his achievements.”

  4. Anastasia:

    But John is right that patents make non-reproducing plants more lucrative…because you have to go back to the patent-owner to get more. I don’t think it’s a compelling argument against patents, however.


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