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A Food Fight Over a Fungus

Times Staff Writer

Refrigerated trucks trundle down the pretty country lanes laden with pale, doughy masses of fungus -- 32 tons or more a day.

“Pure mycoprotein -- good enough to eat, won’t taste of anything, very bland,” declares manufacturing manager Pete Willis, tearing off a golf-ball-sized sample from a 2,000-pound glob.

Workers in white boots shepherd the fungal paste through a sea of vats and clanking machines that mix, press, slice and dice the raw dough.

What comes out at the end is a matter of perspective -- luscious artificial meat patties that taste just like moist chicken, or dangerous vat-grown “vomit-burgers” that are sickening consumers from coast to coast.

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The product is Quorn, a fungus-based meat substitute that millions of Europeans have eaten for years. It entered the U.S. market in 2002 to rave reviews by consumers, but was quickly met with a dogged anti-Quorn campaign by an influential consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Michael Jacobson, the CSPI’s executive director, claims that Quorn, which he derisively terms an “odious” “mold"-based product, makes people ill -- and he wants every last nugget expunged from American soil.

He has started a “Quorn complaints” website, published anti-Quorn letters in medical journals and petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to yank the product, which he likes to note is made by a former subsidiary of the “pharmaceutical juggernaut AstraZeneca.”

“It seems in the FDA’s eyes severe vomiting, diarrhea and anaphylactic reactions do not constitute harm,” Jacobson said. “I think that’s pathetic.”

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Quorn’s manufacturers, based in the bucolic Yorkshire town of Stokesley, say they are perplexed and not a little irked over the complaints about what they prefer to describe as their “mushroom"-related product.

More than 1 billion servings of Quorn’s 100-plus dishes have been eaten in Europe since the first savory pie was rolled out with pomp in 1985. Consumers have chowed down on Chinese-style chargrilled mini fillets, beef-style casserole with herb dumplings and Southern-style Quorn burgers -- all with no known deaths.

Several leading allergy experts say there is no evidence suggesting special problems with Quorn, although a few people can be expected to react badly to the fungus, just as some might to any other foodstuff, such as raspberries, milk or corn.

“We wouldn’t be the No. 1 bestselling [meat substitute] in the U.K. and Europe if we had the kinds of reactions that Michael Jacobson is claiming,” said Nick Hughes, managing director of Quorn’s maker, Marlow Foods Ltd.

So far, Quorn is winning the fight. More than 6 million servings have been sold in the U.S., and the brand is the No. 1-selling poultry alternative in American health food stores and its nuggets the overall bestselling fake meat, according to SPINS, a natural food market researcher.

But Jacobson is used to a fight. After all, he’s the man who helped get warning labels on foods containing the fat substitute Olestra with a relentless media campaign, and battled to require food companies to display the trans fat content of their products on nutrition labels.

There’s more at stake than just another meatless patty. For the CSPI, it’s part of a broad battle over the soul and safety of modern food, pitting the wholesomeness of Mother Nature against the corrupting power of big business and biotechnology.

“Quorn is about as far from natural as you can get,” Jacobson recently wrote. “There is an abundance of healthful meat alternatives made with things that come from farms, like soybeans, mushrooms, rice

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How Quorn Is Created

The home of Quorn is nestled near the green dales and looming moors of North Yorkshire.

Two towering fermentation tanks culture the raw material for Quorn on a steady diet of corn syrup, air and ammonia. The fungus is centrifuged to remove water, briefly heated, then driven to the Marlow food plant 20 miles away.

Inside, tons of the doughy mycoprotein sit in a frigid chamber. The air is thick with its smell -- yeasty, but fustier.

White-coated workers in hairnets monitor the machinery as ingredients are poured into the dough and blended in a giant mixer -- malt, “standard chicken flavor,” egg white binding agent. “Just like a big kitchen, really,” said John Pinkney, who helped develop Quorn and is now a consultant to Marlow Foods.

Stainless steel machines clank and sigh. Brown Quorn slabs emerge from a forming machine and conga-dance down a conveyer belt. The slabs, called billets, are marched into a steamer, extruded into strands, then chopped to bits with a whirring blade, to make fars -- mincemeat -- for the Swedish market.

Quorn is made from a fungus known as Fusarium venenatum that consists of tiny, translucent strands. The fibers’ thickness and their branching patterns give Quorn a springiness and mouth feel similar to animal muscle.

“Delish!” said 40-year-old vegetarian Heidi Johnson of La Crescenta, who relishes the $3.99-a-box Quorn nuggets. “I don’t eat many meat substitute products.... Most of them taste awful or have a really disgusting consistency.”

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“We took to it, you know,” said Billy Port, a burly 52-year-old Yorkshire taxi driver, who likes the chicken-style pieces in stir-fry dishes. And “I like my meat as much as anyone else.”

Such culinary accolades are not quite what Quorn’s creators had in mind when they started work on the product in the 1960s.

The news was in: Within decades starvation would engulf a soaring world population unless a plentiful protein source was found for animals and people. Petroleum and chemical companies began coaxing potentially edible yeasts, molds and bacteria to grow on nutrients such as sugar cane stalks, cassava meal, petroleum waste and manure.

Lord J. Arthur Rank, then chairman of the British food company Rank Hovis McDougall, set his scientists on the project -- focusing on fungi, which are high in protein and already eaten by people as yeast and mushrooms.

The team tested thousands of fungal samples from all over the globe for their ease of growth, nutritiousness and texture. But the fungus they finally selected was British-grown, found in some soil right near the company’s research center.

The “single cell protein” movement eventually fell apart as oil prices climbed -- heightening fermentation costs -- and soybean prices fell, rendering microbial proteins uncompetitive.

But Lord Rank’s project survived long enough to hook onto the growing health movement. In 1985, after reviewing animal and human safety tests, the British government approved the sale of mycoprotein.

When Quorn finally arrived in the U.S. 17 years later, health food fans -- and even Jacobson’s group -- embraced its chicken-y taste.

“Darn good tasting,” the center raved in its newsletter. “A new dead ringer for poultry.”

But a chill wind soon blew down the aisles of the whole-food stores.

It started with what Quorn executives now describe as the “mushroom controversy.”

Curious about the new food, Jacobson noticed on Quorn’s sunny orange packages that the product was made of mycoprotein from “an unassuming member of the mushroom family.”

“We had never heard of mycoprotein but we looked into it and found that it was a synonym for mold,” he said. “At the very least the product -- even if tasty and nutritious -- was mislabeled.”

Tackling Food Issues

A mislabeled product is like a lightning rod for the CSPI.

Formed in 1971 by Jacobson, the media-savvy group has tackled a long list of food-related issues: organic food standards, junk food marketing to children -- and, most famously, the fat and sugar content of some ice creams (“coronaries in cones”), theater popcorn (“the Godzilla of snack foods”) and restaurant dishes such as fettuccine Alfredo (“heart attack on a plate”).

Some critics revile the group as “food cops,” even “food Nazis,” but many nutrition scientists laud the center for tackling the multibillion-dollar food industry.

“They’re without question the most important consumer advocacy group around food and health issues in terms of not only clout but skill,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

Jacobson adheres to an unimpeachable diet. He reportedly ate his last hot dog in 1975.

He knows how to deliver a snappy message. He once appeared on television with three beakers of congealed fat to protest the high fat content of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, fries and shake. He once delivered 170 rotten teeth to the Federal Trade Commission to protest the advertising of sugary snacks on children’s television.

And he is effective.

The CSPI’s campaigns are largely behind the banning of sulfite preservatives from salad bars, placing nutrition labels on food, muscling unhealthy fats out of movie theater popcorn and getting the FDA to require warnings (no longer required, however) on products containing Olestra.

The CSPI’s first action against Quorn was to file a deceptive labeling complaint with the FDA. The American Mushroom Institute and Gardenburger, a maker of meatless soy and mushroom patties, enthusiastically joined the protest.

Two fungus experts from Penn State University also objected, writing that Fusarium and edible mushrooms are so distantly related that it was like “calling a rat a chicken.”

Jacobson won round one and now Quorn packages bear the description: “from the fungi family -- and a relative of mushrooms, truffles, and morel.”

He was well onto round two.

Jacobson scrutinized an unpublished study by Quorn’s makers in which 300 volunteers ate either mycoprotein or meat in identical sauces. He said his analysis showed 5% of people had some reaction to Quorn, such as nausea and vomiting.

He published a letter in the American Journal of Medicine in September, asserting that a CSPI-commissioned telephone survey in Britain of about 400 Quorn-eaters found that the faux meat sickens more people than leading allergens such as shellfish, peanuts, milk and soy.

Critics say Jacobson has been kneading the facts a bit.

For instance, the industry study cited by Jacobson actually revealed only one confirmed reaction to Quorn, according to British consultant Gareth Edwards, who supervised the study.

The British phone survey wasn’t designed to compare reactions to Quorn with major allergies, and Jacobson shouldn’t have tried to, said Mica Quinn, spokesperson for market researchers Taylor Nelson Sofres.

But Jacobson has more.

In December, the CSPI coordinated a letter from 11 consumers who reported bad reactions, urging the health food store chain Whole Foods Market to take the product from its shelves.

He says his Quorn Complaints website and ads in British newspapers have turned up more than 600 people who say they got sick from eating Quorn.

Spencer Smith, a 46-year-old Seattle marketing director, said he had eaten Quorn a few times and found it “fantastic.” “My wife liked it and my two children loved it too,” he said.

One evening, he popped a couple of nuggets in his mouth and began feeling ill. Three hours later, “I vomited as violently as I ever have in my life,” he said.

“I bet it was the Quorn,” his wife said.

Mary Elizabeth Ehrhardt of Seminole, Fla., said she went to the emergency room after a meal of vegetables and Quorn cutlets.

“I was sitting at my computer and I started to feel really nauseous,” she said. “I went to lie down and shortly after had uncontrollable vomiting that went on for about an hour and a half. Then the diarrhea started.”

Ehrhardt didn’t link her experience to Quorn until a few weeks later, when she ate a little minced beef-style Quorn while vacationing in Holland. “The same thing happened,” she said.

She now thinks it was either a food intolerance or an allergy since she is allergic to molds.

“How many people have to be allergic before you say no?” Jacobson asked. “Do you need dead bodies before you keep it out of the food supply?”

The FDA is investigating about 100 cases from the Quorn Complaints website but does not think there is evidence to warrant a withdrawal, said George Pauli, associate director for science and policy in the FDA’s office of food additive safety.

Experts Unconvinced

Several leading allergy and nutrition experts are also unconvinced by the CSPI’s case against Quorn, saying that it is long on anecdotes and short on science.

“Michael Jacobson has not done these consumers much good by instilling fear of this product in their minds without any real clinical or scientific proof, except in a few cases,” said Stephen Taylor, head of the food science and technology department at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Jacobson’s list of 600 is hard to parse. People can feel ill after eating for all kinds of reasons, including flu, food poisoning and even, in some cases, from the mere suspicion that a substance is bad for them, said Ronald Simon, an allergy expert at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla.

Although there are a handful of published cases of reactions to Quorn, Simon said those reaction rates don’t seem to come close to the eight most troublesome food allergens, such as peanuts, shellfish and soy.

For example, Britain’s Anaphylaxis Campaign, a group with 7,400 members with severe food allergies, has never received a complaint about Quorn, said its director, David Reading.

More than one rotten tomato has been lobbed across the lunch hall as the fungus food fight drags on.

Michael Fumento, author, columnist and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, slammed the CSPI’s campaign in an article titled “Quorn Flakes.” He suggested that Jacobson might be trying to help out the financially troubled Gardenburger.

Jacobson has suggested that the indifference of allergy experts to Quorn is rooted either in negligence or murky financial ties to the food industry.

“Many nutrition experts have such close relationships with industry that they serve as a bunch of cheerleaders,” he said.

Marlow Foods executives continue to scratch their heads and take it all rather personally.

“Marlow Foods has nothing else but Quorn, so it goes straight to the heart in that respect -- he ain’t a popular guy around here,” Pinkney said darkly, sitting down to a lunch of Quorn dainties.

In the middle of the table sit two new payloads for the Quorn invasion: Tex-Mex and Indian-style sautes, freshly approved by Marlow for the U.S. market.

“They’re skillet meals,” cheerily explains Margaret Coates, Marlow Foods’ development assistant. “We’re hoping that you’ll enjoy those!”

Then she bustles back to the kitchen to take some Quorn test tarts from the oven.

Down in the production plant, the mycoprotein billets are marching, marching, marching.


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