New fungus may make people sick, says CSPI

WASHINGTON - The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has told the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that a small percentage of consumers may get sick and throw up after eating a new chicken- and meat-substitute made from a fungus. Last January, the FDA allowed the manufacturer to sell the ingredient as a Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) substance, and the agency is on the brink of formally approving it as a food additive.

     According to CSPI, the FDA failed to take into account one of the only scientific studies of the organism that makes up the “mycoprotein” ingredient in “Quorn”-brand foods. That study linked the consumption of Quorn foods to vomiting and diarrhea.

     CSPI provided the FDA with new reports from several consumers who got sick after eating Quorn products. CSPI received those reports via their web site,

     A 22-year-old Massachusetts man told CSPI he threw up several hours after eating Quorn Tenders—and eight days later after eating Quorn Nuggets. One 35-year-old Maryland woman reported severe vomiting and diarrhea several hours after eating Quorn Chicken-style Tenders.

     “Here we have brand-new foods made with an ingredient never before eaten in the United States. Instead of undergoing careful reviews, this fungus food was waved into the American food supply with only a cursory governmental review,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said. “But even the limited amount of research should have raised enough red flags to keep Quorn off the shelves pending further testing. This could be the FDA’s worst blunder since Olestra.”

     Quorn’s labels identify mycoprotein as “mushroom in origin” and as an “unassuming member of the mushroom family”—claims that are highly deceptive and that should not be permitted, according to CSPI. And, says Jacobson, the highly processed vat-grown fungus is hardly what the average person considers “natural.”

     Three mycologists (fungus experts) at Pennsylvania State University and the State University of New York at Cortland told the FDA earlier this year that while the Quorn fungus (Fusarium venenatum) and common mushrooms are both fungi, calling the Quorn fungus a mushroom is like “calling a rat a chicken because both are animals.” Those scientists also wrote that F. Venenatum is a fungus more accurately described as a “mold.” Another mycologist from Cornell University said that mushrooms are as distantly related to Quorn’s fungus as humans are to jellyfish.

     This is CSPI’s second complaint to the FDA about Quorn. In February, CSPI first complained about the deceptive labeling of Quorn and the inadequate testing of the fungal product for allergenicity. In April, the Gardenburger company, which uses real mushrooms in its meat-free burgers, and the American Mushroom Institute both complained to the FDA about Quorn’s false labeling.

     Today, CSPI also called on the managers of more than 400 grocery stores that sell Quorn products, asking them to remove the products from the shelves pending further testing and changes in the labeling.

     Quorn is produced by Marlow Foods, a division of pharmaceutical juggernaut AstraZeneca. Quorn has been commercially available in Britain and in other European countries since 1994.