Oppose the Bleeding Out of Baby Cows: Support Vegan Science

The Rise for Animals Team, April 17, 2024

When we advocate for the abolition of animal experimentation, we advocate for research that does not exploit other-than-human animals in any way. As such, we promote the absolute “replacement” of animals as “tools” for science . . . but, unfortunately, this is not what everyone means when they talk about “‘replacing’ animal use”. Indeed, “[t]here is no clearly agreed upon definition[]”, such that, “[w]hile the general public is often led to believe . . . that th[is] term[] mean[s] no animal use whatsoever is involved, this is all too often not the case.” 

The science community’s exploitation of animals is so pervasive and entrenched that many practices commonly touted as superior to animal research actually represent the same — relying on the torture and killing of animals . . . and their unborn babies. 

Consider, for example, in vitro cell, organ, and tissue culture media. In vitro testing is often lauded as a replacement for certain animal experiments, though it is generally not, at present, devoid of animal exploitation — indeed, one of many culture media’s “default” components is Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) that has been harvested from fetuses cut out of pregnant cows

At the time of slaughter, the cow is found to be pregnant during evisceration (removal of the internal organs in the thorax and abdomen during processing of the slaughtered cow). The reproductive tract is removed from the carcass, and is dropped down a special stainless steel chute leading to the calf processing area, a room that is separated from the rest of the abattoir floor. The calf is removed quickly from the uterus and the umbilical cord is tied off, the fetus is cleaned from amniotic fluid, and is disinfected. A cardiac puncture is performed by inserting a needle between the ribs directly into the heart of the unanaesthesised fetus and blood is extracted under vacuum into a sterile blood collection bag via a tube. In the absence of a vacuum pump, fetal blood may be obtained by means of gravity or massage . . . The fetus is [then] processed for animal feed and extraction of specific substances like fats and proteins, among other things. 

Fetal bovine serum can even be purchased on Amazon. (Source)

Not only does the “collection” of FBS involve animal exploitation, it also involves the causing of suffering and death to unborn animals. 

Prior to the cardiac puncture, the fetuses experience “anoxia, acute lack of oxygen, since oxygen-rich blood supply to the placenta ceases upon death” of their mamas; but, unlike in adult animals, researchers have found that this anoxia “will not directly result in lowered brain function”, such that “the fetal calf can be expected to have normal brain function at the time of the heart puncture.” It follows, unsurprisingly, that – as researchers themselves concede – the puncture of the hearts of live, unanesthetized baby cows “probably” causes them “pain/or discomfort” at both “the moment of the puncture” and “for a period after that, until [they] actually die[]” by bleeding out

According to the industry, the annual victim toll of this procedure tops 2,000,000 million fetuses at various stages of development. (The industry notes that the fetuses must be at least three months old, lest their hearts be” too small for puncture”, and voices a preference for significantly older (e.g., 9-month-old) fetuses because their hearts contain more serum.)

The use of FBS in cell cultures mirrors the use of other-than-human animals for human research generally: both are plagued not only by ethical but also “technical and scientific problems” that scientists themselves assert “result[], frequently, in poor scientific data for clinical translation” and  “may interfere with the advancement of biological science”. 

FBS-specific problems, which “alter the outcome of scientific experiments” and “make it difficult to compare similar experiments performed with different batches of serum”,  include

  • Variations in each batch of serum. (Indeed, scientists describe FBS as “the least consistent” “cell culture media supplement”.)
  • Contamination with viruses, bacteria, mycoplasmas, yeast, fungi, immunoglobulins, endotoxins, and possibly prions. (This poses risks that extend far beyond the culture itself, such as human infection with zoonotic disease.) 
  • The presence of unidentified substances, with unknown functions and effects.
Cows — just like all other living, breathing beings — are deserving of rights.

Also like broader animal experimentation practices, experts assert that FBS collection and use “should be replaced . . . both on scientific and moral grounds”. 

Members of the scientific community recognize that, “ . . . to deliver technically and ethically improved in vitro methods, the most significant challenge is to replace the products of animal origin in existing methods and avoid their use in the development of new protocols and techniques….” 

Unfortunately, in this discrete space (as in the broader industry), researchers’ resistance to the pursuit and adoption of truly animal-free methodologies presents a tremendous hurdle to progress. In fact, researchers continue to use FBS despite the general availability of various, non-animal options, including “500 cell culture media and 32 cell lines”, featured in at least two, free databases that catalog and identify “serum-free” media and culture systems.

Further, true to the nature of the ever-exploitative interests of the animal research industry, resources are being spent on changing the victim of serum collection rather than the practice itself. Researchers continue to invest time and money exploring the use of fetal goat, horse, and pig serum, as well as fish blood. (In highlighting the industry’s corrupting speciesism, researchers have recently demonstrated particular interest in the latter, based on the assertion that fish represent a “less controversial source of serum for scientific use”.) 

As champions of just science, we must oppose all animal exploitation and, thereby, help restore the true meaning of “replacement” (i.e., absolute replacement). 

Experts share that without (the collective) us leading this charge, “progress to end animal research will always remain limited….” – that without “honesty among regulators and the research community that the use of any animal product is not a complete replacement”, there will not be sufficient “encouragement to fully replace animal testing with ethical and reliable human-relevant methods”. 

To this end, we as advocates must be clear that scientific techniques utilizing FBS or any other product of animal use and exploitation are nothing more than different forms of the evil we’re fighting

Thankfully, we’re in great company. Take, for example XCellR8, an innovative UK-based laboratory developing “entirely animal and animal-product free” in vitro tests that are gaining recognition and validation. Please join us and the scientists at XCellR8 in advocating for science devoid of any and all victims — baby cows included.

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