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Sick'nd by Chik'n? Food police take the fun out of fungus meat

Matt Ernst started worrying when his face swelled up and turned deep red. Panic hit when his throat began to feel tighter and tighter, till he was gasping for air.

Figuring that Ernst was having an allergic reaction, his girlfriend handed him some Benadryl. It didn’t take long for the antihistamine to take hold and for Ernst’s throat to begin to open up.

As the couple tried to figure out what might have caused the reaction, Ernst recalled the last thing he’d eaten: a fake chicken cutlet. Then the 48-year-old Florida software salesman remembered the scratchy, itchy feeling he’d had in his throat the last time he’d eaten the meat substitute made by Quorn Foods, Inc.

A quick web search and Ernst discovered he wasn’t the first to have a reaction after eating a Quorn cutlet. The website for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) described similar episodes in others and the group's nearly decade-long campaign to get the Food and Drug Administration to either pull Quorn’s fungus-based meat substitutes or to add a warning to the products’ labels.

Quorn products, sold at popular grocery chains including Whole Foods, come in the shape of artificial “Chik’n” patties or nuggets – or even cylindrical beef approximations or turkey “roasts."  The main ingredient is a so-called mycoprotein --  protein extracted from a microscopic fungus. Quorn has sparked a yum or eww debate among vegetarians since it hit the U.S. market nearly a decade ago.

CSPI, dubbed the “food police” for picking on makers of fattening foods, recently provided a report to the FDA detailing 500 adverse reactions to Quorn’s mycoprotein in U.S. customers. The consumer watchdog group also says that it has also compiled a list of 1,200 more adverse events from European and Australian customers.

In a letter to the FDA, CSPI’s executive director Michael Jacobson described several accounts in detail, including the case of a 20-year-old man Texas man who said he began to feel nauseous soon after eating Quorn’s Chik’n Nuggets and then blacked out, fell, and hit his head. Also detailed was the case of a 75-year-old Maryland woman who, four hours after consuming a Quorn Chik’n patty, began vomiting uncontrollably while at a Les Miserables performance, passed out and eventually ended up in the emergency room treated with an anti-nausea medication.

Jacobson told the FDA, “we believe, and we suspect that any reasonable person would believe, that any novel food ingredient that causes hives, anaphylactic reactions, or vomiting so violent that blood vessels burst, cannot, indeed, must not, be considered by the FDA to be ‘generally recognized as safe.’”

But Steve Marinker, a spokesman for Quorn Foods, said the products "have been extensively tested and approved as safe by the relevant regulator in each market. The level of intolerance to Quorn products is extremely low and much lower than for other protein foods such as soya, nuts, shellfish, dairy and eggs."

For its part, the FDA argues that while there may have been some reactions to the Quorn product, they are rare – and most likely not due to allergies to the food.

The agency took a close look at the adverse event reports forwarded to it by CSPI as well as those reported in the medical literature and concluded that there was “no evidence that mycoprotein-containing products cause a heightened allergic risk or other food safety concern,” said Douglas Karas, an FDA spokesperson.

The bottom line, Karas said, is that most of the reactions are probably due to “intolerance” rather than allergic reactions. “In the case of mycoprotein, some highly sensitive consumers appear prone to adverse gastrointestinal effects after eating mycoprotein, which are, judging from the reports very unpleasant,” he added.  

That response doesn’t sit well with Gary Ebert, a 43-year-old software engineer from Silver Springs, Md. Ebert has been a vegetarian most of his life and was happy when he found Quorn’s line of foods. But after one of the products made him violently ill, Ebert said he thinks mycoprotein should come with a warning on its label.

“I for one don’t think unreasonable for the label to say that this might make you so sick you won’t be able to eat solid food for 24 to 36 hours,” Ebert said.