Natural Foods Merchandiser

Quorn Dogged: Scientists Call Advocacy Group's Complaints Unfounded

Claims made by a national advocacy organization that the meat-substitute product Quorn is dangerous are baseless, two prominent food scientists said. They said food stores should not hesitate to stock the product.

Quorn, introduced to the United States in January, is a fungus-based product that is high in protein and fiber. Independent consumer taste tests have brought rave reviews for the product's texture and flavor.

"It has been thoroughly researched. We don't feel there is a need to be concerned about the product," said Mary Mulry, senior director of product development and standards for Wild Oats Markets Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

Mulry, who holds a doctorate in food science, reviewed the studies submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by Marlow Foods Ltd. of Yorkshire, England. FDA approval was necessary for the company to sell the product in the United States. Quorn has been sold in the United Kingdom and Europe since 1985. England's Ministries of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food approved the product before it was allowed on store shelves there.

Controversy over Quorn started in August when the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the FDA to pull the product from the market. The center said it started receiving complaints in April from consumers who claimed that Quorn was making them sick. Symptoms included vomiting, nausea and shortness of breath. CSPI posted a special Web site where consumers could lodge their complaints; it also published an advertisement in a British newspaper asking for reports of health problems relating to Quorn.

A CSPI spokesman said the center has received complaints from about 250 people, most of them from the U.K. The center held a news conference in Washington to announce its concerns; subsequently, stories about Quorn were carried by hundreds of media outlets around the United States. CSPI also wrote letters to more than 400 grocery store managers in the United States asking them to stop selling the product.

The action by the organization took Quorn Foods Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Marlow Foods, by surprise.

"It's just not a big deal; it doesn't make any sense. Mycoprotein is not new."

"We've been on the market for 17 years in Europe, and 20 million people have eaten our product," said Chris Samuel, vice president of marketing for Quorn Foods. "You don't do that by making people ill."

Today, Quorn is sold in 2,000 stores throughout the United States.

Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, reviewed the Quorn scientific studies earlier this year. She called CSPI's concerns "overblown." CSPI has not screened the complaints or attempted to obtain an independent medical review, Bonci said.

"It's just not a big deal; it doesn't make any sense," Bonci said. "Mycoprotein is not new. It's been around a long time. And [Marlow Foods] is not some fly-by-night operation. This is a very pure strain of mycoprotein—it has been well cultivated and purified."

Mycoprotein is found in fungi, such as mushrooms, explained Mulry. Some forms of protein, most notably the types found in milk, soy, shellfish, wheat gluten and peanuts, do cause adverse reactions in some humans. That Quorn has made some people ill is therefore not a surprise, she said, adding that the number of people complaining is statistically insignificant.

The company probably did err by stating on its packaging that Quorn is made from a form of mushroom. While Quorn is derived from fungus, it is not derived from mushrooms, Mulry said. Wild Oats has asked the company to consider changing its labels, and Quorn is reviewing the matter, Samuel said.

Using the word mushroom on its packaging raised the ire of Scott Wallace, CEO of Gardenburger Authentic Foods Co. Mushrooms are a major ingredient in the Portland, Ore., company's grain-based meat-substitute products, he said. The company has asked the FDA to require Quorn to remove the word mushroom from the label.

The controversy hasn't cut into Quorn sales in the U.S. market, Samuel said. Sales since January are $2 million, about 50 percent ahead of projections.

Joseph P. Lewandowski is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 10

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