Meat Substitute Made From Vat-Grown Fungus Causes Vomiting, Allergic Reactions ... and a Lawsuit

The number of people who became sick after eating Quorn, the meat substitute made from a factory-fermented fungus, and filed adverse reaction reports with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has now topped 1,000. More than 750 of those complaints came from Britons, with 218 from Americans.

Because several percent of people who eat Quorn experience adverse reactions ranging from nausea and vomiting to life-threatening anaphylactic shock, CSPI has urged the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. and the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom to take the products off the market or at least require bold warning notices.

CSPI has been collecting adverse reaction reports about Quorn since 2002, shortly after the FDA accepted the manufacturer’s contention that Quorn was GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.” In the UK, Quorn has been marketed nationally for over a decade.

When it first arrived in American supermarkets, Quorn’s labels described its main ingredient as a “mycoprotein [which] comes from a small, unassuming member of the mushroom family,” and as “mushroom in origin.” CSPI found that the organism in Quorn is actually a form of mold named Fusarium venenatum, venenatum being the Latin word for filled with venom, or poisoned. British and American regulators pressured Quorn to drop its dubious claim to being a type of mushroom and spurred other minor labeling improvements, though the company still deceptively brags on its web sites that Quorn is a “relative of mushrooms, truffles, and morels.”

“The organism in Quorn is small and unassuming, to be sure—microscopic, in fact—until it’s fed into giant fermenting tanks and harvested by machine,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But saying Quorn is a relative of mushrooms is like saying that rats are related to chickens. In any event, our labeling concerns were quickly eclipsed by safety concerns, once we learned that the inventors’ own safety tests found that Quorn made some people sick to their stomachs.”

In May 2005, CSPI filed suit in Texas state court against Quorn and its leading U.S. retailer, Whole Foods, asking that those companies place warning labels on packages and freezer cases about the symptoms some people suffer after eating Quorn. That case has been reassigned and is now pending in Federal District Court in Austin, TX. The plaintiff in that case is Avery Goodman, who suffered a five-hour bout of vomiting and diarrhea and two days of stomach pain after eating “Quorn Naked Cutlets.” His symptoms are similar to hundreds of reports filed at One 25-year-old Illinois woman vomited a dozen times after eating Quorn and before she figured out the cause. A 35-year-old British woman experienced increasingly severe vomiting and diarrhea after eating Quorn, until she realized that it was the Quorn that was making her sick.

Other people experience skin reactions and breathing difficulties. One Idaho girl, aged 7, had a rash and hives for a week after eating a single Quorn nugget. A 32-year-old New York man had two severe asthma attacks after eating Quorn products. One 46-year-old man from County Down, Northern Ireland developed a rash and his throat swelled shut after eating Quorn sausages. He was hospitalized for six days. Dozens of others have reported hives, itching, and difficulty breathing or swallowing.

Quorn’s manufacturer admits that some people experience adverse reactions, but claims it is only one out of every 146,000 consumers. It came up with that number by dividing the number of portions of Quorn sold worldwide by the number of complaints the company had received in one year. CSPI’s obscure web site has already received reports from one out of every 32,000 British Quorn consumers. Based on the fact that food poisoning is dramatically underreported, and based on a telephone survey it commissioned of British Quorn consumers, CSPI estimates that the true reaction rate is more like one out of 25 consumers.

“What’s most distressing is how nonchalant the FDA and British food safety officials have been about this particular organism being used for food, especially in a time of increased concern about food allergies,” Jacobson said. “FDA officials told me that they consider Quorn safe because it does not cause permanent, severe harm. That’s a ridiculous standard, and it ignores the fact that Quorn causes potentially fatal anaphylactic reactions.”

Most of the Quorn sold in the United States comes in the form of chicken-like cutlets or “tenders,” beef-like “grounds,” imitation sausages, and cylindrical “roasts.” In the U.K., the company has transmogrified the fungus into even more incarnations, including burgers, bangers, lamb-like “grillers,” porkish “ribsters,” Swedish style “balls,” “fillets in white wine sauce,” lasagnas, pies, and other products.