Nestle Urged Not To Buy Chicken-Flavored Fungus Company Quorn
CSPI Cites Dangerous Allergic Reactions
December 13, 2010
WASHINGTON—A nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group is urging Nestlé not to purchase Quorn, a line of fungus-based fake meats that causes severe allergic reactions—including vomiting, diarrhea, and anaphylactic reactions—in some people. In a letter to Nestlé, the Center for Science in the Public Interest says that it will continue to press government agencies to withdraw Quorn from the market or at least require that it bear labels warning consumers of the risks of eating it.
Scientists first discovered Quorn’s fungus, Fusarium venenatum, in 1967 in a soil sample from the British town of Marlow. Grown in giant fermentation vats and continuously fed a supply of oxygen, glucose, and nutrients, Quorn’s fungus spawns a protein-rich paste. That paste is further processed into vaguely meaty chunks or strips. And in 1985, Marlow Foods introduced a “savoury pie” composed of what it now calls “mycoprotein.” Today, Quorn typically takes the shape of patties or nuggets designed to simulate chicken, as well as a one-pound cylindrical “Turk’y Roast” and ethnic dishes such as the “Tikka pieces” and “Fillets in Tomato and Olive Sauce” it sells in the U.K.
The scientists who found Quorn’s fungus might have had an inkling about their discovery when they chose the Latin venenatum—or “filled with venom”—for its name. Sure enough, an early study by Quorn’s manufacturer found that 10 percent of 200 human subjects fed Quorn developed nausea or a stomachache. Other scientists found that Quorn caused allergic reactions in some patients. And in 2003, CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson published a letter in the journal Allergy characterizing the adverse reactions of 284 Quorn consumers (CSPI has a Web site to collect such reports). A subsequent article in the American Journal of Medicine reported that, according to a CSPI-commissioned telephone survey in Britain, a higher percentage of people believe they are sensitive to Quorn than to shellfish, milk, peanuts, wheat or other common allergens. Though no deaths have yet been linked to Quorn, anaphylaxis can be life-threatening.
“It was clearly a mistake for food safety regulators in Europe, the United States, and Australia to approve Quorn for human consumption in the first place,” Jacobson said. “It would be a real tragedy for a major food company like Nestle to start marketing foods made with this harmful ingredient on a bigger scale. There’s so much concern about allergic reactions to conventional foods, so it’s especially inappropriate to broaden the marketing of an unnecessary and novel powerful allergen.”
Quorn is presently owned by U.K.-based Premier Foods. It has been previously owned by private equity firms and the drug company AstraZeneca. CSPI has been urging the Food and Drug Administration to revoke its “generally recognized as safe” designation for Quorn mycoprotein, and CSPI’s litigation unit has filed suit on behalf of an Pennsylvania woman who had a severe reaction from eating Quorn. Those efforts have not yet succeeded in getting Quorn off the market or requiring warning labels on the product, though previously CSPI got the company to at least acknowledge on the label that mycoprotein comes from a fungus.
“I was curled in a ball on the bathroom floor for almost three hours continually throwing up,” said Marisa Santanna, a behavioral health case manager from Harrisburg, PA, who ate Quorn nuggets and cutlets. “It got so bad that I started to throw up blood. The next morning I felt fine, and I made the connection that the last time this happened I ate Quorn, too. I read the ingredients on the box and decided to look up mycoprotein and was shocked at what I found online. There isn’t even a warning on the box.”
Quorn’s manufacturer used to claim that its signature ingredient was “mushroom based,” but the company still describes Fusarium venenatum as “an edible fungi [sic] like mushrooms, morels, or truffles.” But Fusarium venenatum is quite unlike mushrooms, and is actually a form of mold—some of which are edible and some not. Other members of the Fusarium genus produce dangerous mycotoxins and have been studied for potential use as biological weapons or herbicides.
“We have so many safe, sustainable, and wholesome fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to enjoy on their own and from which to make meat substitutes,” Jacobson said. “Why resort to vat-grown, allergenic mold? To me, Quorn seems better suited to dystopian science fiction than health food stores.”