In the eyes of some vegetarians, Quorn’s meat-free “chicken” nuggets are as good as McDonald’s.
Sold everywhere from Whole Foods to Target, the company’s products are a veritable success in the states. But while the flavor is appealing, the alleged main ingredient behind the “protein” has some cringing and others incensed: mold.
A false advertising class action lawsuit, filed in California this week, is the newest development in a battle food health experts have been waging for decades. Like the lawsuit, it centers on the main ingredient in Quorn’s meatless selections, a product called mycoprotein.
Mycoprotein originates from a fungus in the U.K. A patented product, it’s not only the main ingredient in Quorn’s foods—it’s their entire business model. The company has survived multiple lawsuits in the past decade over its origin but this one, which attacks its advertising, is decidedly different.
While food health experts go to bat for the lawsuit, spokesmen from Quorn insist that the lawsuits have no merit. Will the $830 million company beat the mold crusaders once again?
Kimberly Birbower, the plaintiff in the class action suit, argues that mycoprotein is not a “mushroom-based protein” as the company asserts, but a “fermented mold”—something customers deserve to know. “Had Quorn disclosed the truth—that its products are actually made of mold–Plaintiff and consumers would not have purchased Quorn’s products,” the complaint reads.
Birbower, who first began buying the company’s products in 2015, says Quorn’s claim that mycoprotein is “the same or substantially similar to a mushroom, truffle, or morel” is nonsense. “Quorn’s representations [is] clearly designed to deceive consumers,” she says.
Birbower’s lawsuit is a new approach to tackling Quorn’s alleged mold-driven product, which others have done through lawsuits attempting to prove that it’s unsafe.
The history of mycoprotein dates back to the 1960s, when it was created by a U.K. scientist who feared a protein shortage was imminent. Derived from a fungus called Fusarium venenatum, it was eventually grown in large fermentation tanks.
The product was approved for human consumption in 1985 and named for Quorn, a village in Leicester. After enjoying success in Ireland and the U.K., it was released in the United States in 2002. Not long after, health experts began expressing concerns—many of them based on the fact its health effects were largely unknown.
In America, it was approved by the Federal Drug Administration with what’s called a GRAS notification—something that more or less qualifies it as safe for “general food use.” Less than a year later, Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, filed a petition asking the FDA to reconsider the terms of this.
Jacobson argued that Quorn should have to clarify the origin of mycoprotein on the package—changing it from “mushroom in origin” to “fungus.” His concern was fueled by reports that people had responded negatively to the fungus, which the FDA had not reviewed.
Specifically, he pointed to a study from 1977 in which 10 percent of the 200 subjects who consumed Quorn became ill with “nausea, vomiting, and stomach ache.” When the FDA denied his petition, Jacobson created a website for consumers to report adverse reactions. Today, it houses more than 2,000 examples.
One is that of Kathy Cardinale, a 43-year-old advertising executive, who says that she became “violently ill” after eating Quorn’s chicken patties. "I felt like the soles of my feet were going to come out of my mouth, I was vomiting so hard," she said. "Once I began to research Quorn online I realized I wasn’t alone…It was unbelievable to me that the company knew this was going on and wasn’t warning consumers.”
While most reactions seem to involve nausea and vomiting, a few reports allege that the consumption of mycoprotein in Quorn’s products turned fatal. Last March, the parents of an 11-year-old boy sued Quorn claiming that an allergy to the fungus, which they weren’t aware the product contained, led to their son’s death.
Quorn, for its part, has vigorously denied the accusations, saying that the intolerance rates of mycoprotein are far below that of wheat and soy. In the case of the 11-year-old boy, they point to the final coroner’s report, which found that he succumbed to an asthma attack.
In a lengthy statement to The Daily Beast, Quorn “vehemently” denied the claims made in the California lawsuit. “We take great care to meticulously list the ingredients in each of our meat alternative products. This is why our packaging contains some of the most descriptive language of any food product on the market today,” a spokesperson wrote.
Quorn said that the company is not only “fully compliant” with FDA regulations, but that it “exceeds the agency’s standards” by offering additional information. After successfully delivery of 3 billion meals in 16 countries, the company says it’s standing behind its “nutritious, great-tasting foods that are safe to eat and sustainable to our environment.”
“We regret that Ms. Birbrower claims to have been unhappy with her purchase. But we will continue to stand behind our products, and intend to strongly defend the company against these misguided assertions,” the spokesman said in closing.
Despite the denial that their products are dangerous, the company added a warning label in 2015 cautioning consumers about “rare adverse reactions.” The note describes mycoprotein as “a member of the fungi/mold family”—the exact language Birbower takes issue with. Beyond inaccurate, she claims this information is “intentionally buried” on the box so that it “would not be read by ordinary consumers.”
Jacobson and the rest of his team at CSPI stand by their original theory that mycoprotein is unsafe. In an article from 2002, the center quoted a Cornell University mycologist who painted an interesting picture of Quorn’s claim that mycoprotein is “mushroom based,” saying: “Mushrooms are as distantly related to Quorn’s fungus as humans are to jellyfish.”