Vat-Grown Mold Tastes Like Chicken but Makes Some Violently Ill
WASHINGTON—An Arizona woman has filed a class action lawsuit accusing Quorn Foods of not disclosing on labels the fact that some people have serious allergic reactions to the main ingredient in its Quorn line of meat substitutes. That ingredient happens to be a fungus—mold, actually—discovered in the 1960s in a British dirt sample. The company grows the fungus in vats and processes it into a fibrous, proteinaceous paste. But more than a thousand people have reported to the Center for Science in the Public Interest that they have suffered adverse reactions, including nausea, violent vomiting, uncontrollable diarrhea, and even life-threatening anaphylactic reactions after eating the patties, cutlets, tenders and other products made with Quorn's fungus.
Photo Credit: Stacey Greene
"I was vomiting so hard," said Kathy Cardinale, who ate these Quorn patties.
The nonprofit food safety and nutrition watchdog group is serving as co-counsel in the case. Connecticut State Marshals are serving the company, whose U.S. headquarters are in that state, with the suit today. The case is filed in Superior Court in the Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk.
Kathy Cardinale, a 43-year-old advertising executive, ate Quorn’s Chik’n Patties on three separate occasions in 2008. Each time, within two hours of eating the product, Cardinale became violently ill. Thinking she had had a stomach virus, Cardinale didn’t realize that she was reacting to the Quorn until the third time she ate one of the patties, after which she vomited seven or eight times within two hours.
"I felt like the soles of my feet were going to come out of my mouth, I was vomiting so hard," said Cardinale. "Once I began to research Quorn online I realized I wasn’t alone and that other people had similar stories. It was unbelievable to me that the company knew this was going on and wasn’t warning consumers about these problems."
Photo Credit: Stacey Greene
Clockwise from upper left: Quorn’s shape-shifting fungus takes the form of "chik’n", "turk’y", or unspecified "grounds."
Quorn Foods, which is British-owned, markets its signature organism as being related to mushrooms, truffles, and morels, since all of those are fungi. While that’s true, it's as misleading as claiming that humans are related to jellyfish since they’re both animals, according to CSPI. Quorn's fungus is named Fusarium venenatum—"venenatum" is Latin for "venomous."
As early as 1977, a study found that some people have adverse reactions to Fusarium venenatum. That unpublished study conducted by Quorn's developer found that 10 percent of 200 test subjects who ate the fungus experienced nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal symptoms, compared with five percent in a control group. The company claims the rate of illness is trivial, though a 2005 telephone survey of consumers in Britain—where the products have been marketed longer and more widely than in the United States—commissioned by CSPI found that almost five percent of Quorn eaters experienced adverse reactions. That was a higher percentage of people than that of those who reported allergies to shellfish, milk, peanuts or other common food allergens. Since 2002, more than 1,400 British and American consumers have filed adverse reaction reports on a website maintained by CSPI, quorncomplaints.org.
"It's almost unheard of for a company to market something as healthy when it actually makes a significant percentage of its customers sick within minutes or hours," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "It is the company's legal obligation to warn consumers about these serious adverse reactions, and getting the company to meet that obligation is the purpose of this lawsuit."
"Quorn Foods should either find a fungus that doesn’t make people sick, or place prominent warning labels about the vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, and other symptoms Quorn causes in some consumers," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not disagree that Quorn products cause sometimes-severe allergic reactions, the agency still considers the Quorn ingredient to be "generally recognized as safe."
"At a time when the public and doctors are deeply concerned about the rise in food allergies, it is deeply distressing that the FDA knowingly permitted a powerful new allergen into the food supply," said Jacobson. "We call on the FDA to revisit its policy."
CSPI's litigation department has, since its founding in 2004, sued a number of leading national food companies and has secured agreements improving food labeling, marketing, or product formulation with Anheuser Busch, Frito-Lay, Kellogg, KFC, Kraft, Sara Lee and other companies. CSPI's litigation activities helped spur the removal of artificial trans fat from restaurant food and helped return millions of dollars to consumers from makers of the dietary supplement Airborne.
Daniel Blinn of the Connecticut firm Consumer Law Group is serving as co-counsel in the case alongside CSPI’s litigation unit.