There's a fungus among us - and it's not a mushroom

WASHINGTON - The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop deceptive labeling of a new, fungus-based meat substitute being marketed by Marlow Foods, owned by Montagu Private Equity, under the brand name Quorn. CSPI also questioned the adequacy of the product’s testing, which did not include tests for allergenicity.

     Despite label claims that the key ingredient in Quorn is “mushroom in origin,” Quorn products contains no mushrooms. Rather, those products’ “mycoprotein” is actually a fungus known as Fusarium venenatum, and is grown in large fermentation vats. Although that fungus — first discovered in a British soil sample only a few decades ago — comes from nature, says CSPI, it is not what the average consumer expects in a food claiming to be “made from natural ingredients.” And, it’s certainly no mushroom.

     “Consumers aren’t surprised to find mushrooms in a meat substitute,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said. “But they would be surprised to find that a fungus — one never before in the American food supply — has quietly found its way into grocery stores, without the kind of government scrutiny a new food deserves. Despite the deceptive labeling, Quorn’s mycoprotein has nothing to do with mushrooms. It is a fungus and should be labeled as such.”

     Quorn’s labels describe the key ingredient as “an unassuming member of the mushroom family, which we ferment as yogurt.” Although both mycoprotein and yogurt are the result of a fermentation process, the products are entirely dissimilar, according to CSPI’s complaint. With mycoprotein, the fermentation process isn’t just modifying a main ingredient, like milk in the case of yogurt, fermentation actually is the means of creating the ingredient in Quorn. If the FDA allows the obscure term “mycoprotein” to be used in Quorn’s ingredient listings, says CSPI, packages should be required to disclose clearly the product’s fungal origins.

     Another concern raised by CSPI is that some of the novel proteins in the mycoprotein might cause allergic reactions. With genetically engineered foods, such as StarLink corn, even minute amounts of individual possibly allergenic proteins have kept products off the market. Quorn’s mycoprotein, by contrast, is not genetically engineered, but would introduce thousands of new proteins into the food supply — and they would be consumed in far larger amounts than the novel proteins in genetically engineered foods. Even though the mycoprotein has not caused a large number of allergic reactions in European consumers, CSPI says the FDA should require Quorn’s parent company, Montagu Private Equity, to test whether any of the new proteins share the properties of known allergens. Companies typically perform such tests on the new proteins in their genetically engineered products.

     CSPI applauded Quorn’s creators for trying to market a nutritious meat substitute with a low impact on the environment, but insists that it be labeled honestly and studied more thoroughly before Quorn’s mycoprotein can be considered “Generally Recognized As Safe.” And, for a product positioned as a “healthful” alternative to meat, some Quorn offerings, like a “Fettuccini Alfredo” version that packs a half a day’s worth of saturated fat into a single serving, fall even further short of the claims on the label.

     “The manufacturer of these products clearly has a marketing problem, but that is no excuse to deceive consumers,” Jacobson wrote.

     Marlow Foods had approximately $150 million in European sales of Quorn products in 2001, and the product is just arriving in supermarkets and health food stores in the U.S.