THE next time you stroll through your local supermarket, take a minute to count your options in the toothpaste section. More than 40 varieties are splashed with such slogans as ``Maximum Fluoride Protection,'' ``Tartar Control Formula,'' and ``Plaque Fighting Gel.'' But soon a new phrase, ``cruelty free,'' may catch your eye, thanks to the growing effectiveness of animal-rights activists.
Today the once-hidden cost in animal lives for the plethora of products found on supermarket and drugstore shelves is being graphically thrust before the public. For years, dogs have been force-fed deodorants, cats have been saturated in chemical solutions, and cosmetics have been dripped into the eyes of rabbits, all in an attempt to determine the safety of these personal-care products for human beings.
Viewed as necessary by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other organizations concerned with health and safety, the testing continues, often under conditions that leave the animal maimed or dead. Dr. Sidney Green, the director of the division of toxicological studies for the FDA, says, ``we [the FDA] are of the opinion that there are no alternative tests to replace'' certain tests involving animals.
But as a result of videotaped documentation taken inside testing laboratories, publicity campaigns, and consumer boycotts, Americans' attitudes toward this issue are beginning to change:
Membership in animal welfare/rights groups is soaring.
Organizers of the movement are successfully linking their cause to growing worldwide support of environmental issues.
Three new books offering ``what you can do to save the animals'' guidelines will hit bookstores this month.
Estee Lauder Inc. introduced its new ``Origins'' line of ``cruelty free'' cosmetics Aug. 6, joining more than 200 other cosmetics companies that now offer products developed without animal testing. Origins sales have been double projections, according to a spokesman.
Using an aggressive and sometimes confrontational approach, animal-rights groups are prodding more and more individuals and companies into action.
The most vocal and visible group is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The organization's membership has soared from 8,000 in 1984 to more than 350,000 today. It has an office staff of over 100 and an annual operating budget of $7 million, all this only 10 years after its founding.
Kathy Guillermo is director of PETA's Caring Consumer Campaign, which organizes and launches consumer boycotts and other actions that target specific companies, organizations, and even individuals. From her office at PETA headquarters here, which she shares with three rats ``rescued'' from a local high school, Mrs. Guillermo explains PETA's philosophy: ``Animals do not belong to us to eat and wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.''
Although other groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have long denounced the mistreatment of animals, they have usually done so in a less militant fashion than PETA.
PETA's targets include some big names in corporate America. The Gillette Company and L'Oreal are two companies on PETA's hit list for their testing procedures. And while these companies refuse individually to enter into public debate over the issue, an industry group - the Cosmetics, Toiletries, and Fragrance Association (CTFA) - devotes personnel and financial resources to opposing any legislation that would limit the use of animals in product testing.
Putting People First (PPF) was launched in direct response to organizations like PETA. The group's founder, William Wewer, says animal-rights organizations are ``imposing a lifestyle that is completely alien to [human beings].''
Mr. Wewer started PPF with his wife, Kathleen Marquardt, in March of this year. He describes PPF as a grass-roots organization of ``ordinary people who drink milk and eat meat ... have pets, go to circuses and zoos, wear leather and wool....''
Headquartered in Wewer's legal office outside Washington, PPF has yet to conduct any official membership drive or fund-raising activities, but it has distributed petitions encouraging Congress to support ``responsible'' animal testing.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, 1,635,288 animals were used in research in 1988. This figure is recorded each year in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966 and revised in 1976.
But animal-rights groups assert that the act is inadequate to protect animals and must be revised again. For example, the figure recording the use of animals in research is far too low, say activists. Excluded from the act are rats, mice, birds, and livestock, which are not included in the total.
``Animal Testing and Consumer Products,'' a report issued by the Investor Responsibility Research Center, estimates that the actual number of animals used each year may be as high as 70 million.
Although it represents only a small portion of total animal testing, the use of animals to test cosmetics and toiletries has been a favorite target of the animal-rights movement. Groups like PETA are capitalizing on growing public opinion that sacrificing animals for so-called ``vanity products,'' such as cosmetics and furs, is wrong.
In a recent poll in Parents magazine, 80 percent of those surveyed said ``animals have rights that should limit how humans use them.'' The poll also showed that a strong majority condemn and would outlaw the killing of animals for their fur, as well as the use of animals in cosmetics testing.
But a separate Gallup study showed that almost half of the people surveyed had no idea whether their cosmetics and toiletries are tested on animals. Almost 90 percent said they would purchase cosmetics and toiletries tested without the use of animals.
A lack of clearly defined regulations on animal testing adds to the confusion. No laws require companies to test cosmetics on animals. Yet the FDA relies predominantly on the results of animal tests in determining a product's safety.
Despite the lack of clear regulations, industry giants such as Revlon Inc. and Avon Products Inc. have stopped testing on animals. Estee Lauder - a longtime holdout in favor of animal tests - recently joined the ranks. but only on 1 product, `origins', right? its other products still are animal tested, right?
Revlon and Avon abandoned testing following highly visible demonstrations and consumer boycotts organized by PETA, although the companies maintain that the pressure by PETA had nothing to do with their decisions. Guillermo says she doesn't believe PETA's pressuring was responsible, but adds, ``I don't care what reason they give, as long as they stop.''
One of the biggest unresolved questions is what can be done to develop alternative tests.
While nearly all the parties involved cite non-animal testing methods as an ultimate goal, true progress in that direction is hard to find.
The Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was founded to develop tests that do not involve animals. Yet today it continues to actively endorse the use of animals in testing. Dr. John Frazier, the center's associate director, argues that an alternative ``doesn't happen overnight.''
CAAT was established 10 years ago with a grant from the CTFA and is labeled by some animal-rights groups as nothing more than a pawn for the industry.
As for the FDA, Dr. Green says, ``given our budget, [development of alternatives] is clearly not a high priority.''
Meanwhile, PETA argues it is not its role to develop these alternatives. ``The onus to offer alternatives is not on the people who point out the abuse,'' Guillermo says. ``I don't believe that it is our responsibility to come up with alternatives to present to these companies, because we're not the ones abusing the animals.''
There is some evidence that cosmetics companies are investing substantially in development of alternative testing methods. Estee Lauder, for example, spent more than six years testing and developing its new Origins line.
Ropak Laboratories in Irvine, Calif., is a private company attempting to market tests that do not involve animals. One of their products, Eytex, was developed specifically as an alternative to the controversial Draize test, which measures eye irritancy by placing substances in the eyes of albino rabbits for periods as long as three weeks.
Dr. Virginia Gordon of Ropak designed Eytex, which analyzes toxicity on cells in a test tube, in 1981. ``The test has been well validated by private companies,'' she says, and it is being used by more than 120 organizations worldwide - including Revlon, Avon, and Estee Lauder. She says that Eytex provides ``comparable results [to the Draize test] on a regular basis.''
But while the industry appears to be warming to ``cruelty free'' tests such as Eytex, the attitude of the scientific community is less accepting. Although the FDA approves some products not tested on animals, they, along with groups such as CTFA and CAAT, continue to assert the necessity of the Draize test. And while individual companies have turned their backs on tests such as Draize,CTFA regularly lobbies against legislation that would limit its use.
Even those critical of animal-rights groups offer some praise for their impact on society. ``The animal-rights movement has had a positive effect in raising our consciousness.... I think a lot of good has come'' from it, the FDA's Dr. Green says. Dr. Frazier of CAAT notes the scope of the movement's impact: ``General awareness of animal welfare has influenced science as well as the general public.''
But a large-scale move away from tests involving animals appears unlikely in the near future. Gillette gives no signs of bowing to PETA's pressure. Legislation designed to limit procedures involving animals continues to face strong, well-funded opposition.
Even Dr. Gordon of Eytex acknowledges that change will be slow in coming. Though she maintains that her procedure has proved reliable, she acknowledges that ``it is very expensive to develop and validate alternatives.''
For now, Dr. Gordon says, funds to research alternatives are coming from the private sector, and upsetting groups like the CTFA or the FDA will not forward the ``cruelty free'' cause.