When the popular frozen-food delivery service Daily Harvest said this week that it had identified the ingredient that had sickened hundreds of customers, the response from many was simple: "Just what is tara flour?"
Though not yet a household name, tara flour has been growing in popularity as a plant-based source of protein in vegetarian or vegan foods, food safety experts said.
It's used as an alternative to wheat flour and can be found in a variety of products such as shakes, muffins and cookies, said Divya Jaroni, an associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University.
The product has found a market in vegan or vegetarian foods because they can be more challenging to get enough protein, Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, said.
Tara flour is produced from the seeds of tara trees, which are native to South America, especially Peru, Jaroni said.
Daily Harvest said Tuesday that it had identified tara flour as the ingredient in its French Lentil & Leek Crumbles product that had led hundreds of people to become sick, with some reporting liver dysfunction and having to have their gallbladder removed.
As of July 14, there were 96 hospitalizations and 277 reports of illness around the country connected to Daily Harvest’s French Lentil & Leek Crumbles, the Food and Drug Administration said, citing complaint reports. The FDA has been investigating complaints of “gastrointestinal illness and abnormal liver function” related to the frozen product.
Daily Harvest has not yet specified what caused the tara flour to sicken people.
Chapman said possibilities could include contamination issues or a problem during the manufacturing or extraction process.
Daily Harvest said Tuesday it was no longer sourcing from the producer of the tara flour and that the producer does not provide ingredients for the rest of its items.
“This was the first and only time we’ve used tara flour, which has been available and used in the North American market as a plant-based source of protein prior to our use,” Daily Harvest said. “Our investigation team will continue working with the FDA, the tara flour producer and others to help determine what specifically made people sick.”
The company initiated a voluntary recall of the product last month after customers began to complain of becoming sick. Some reported elevated liver enzymes and hospitalizations.
The company also faces several lawsuits from people who say they became sick after consuming the product. Two of the lawsuits were filed against the company and the product’s manufacturer on behalf of two children, including a 4-month-old who was breastfeeding.
The FDA has not identified tara flour as the source of the problem. The agency said in a statement to NBC News on Wednesday that generally it names ingredients or ingredient suppliers “only when there is enough evidence linking that ingredient to illness or injury.”
The agency said it is currently collecting data and conducting sample analysis on multiple ingredients.
“This includes extensive testing for numerous possible adulterants, including microbial and chemical contaminants,” the FDA said. “Sample analysis takes time, and there are no guarantees the information available to the agency will demonstrate a definitive link between illnesses and foods.”
The FDA said the investigation of a particular ingredient “does not mean that the ingredient, or the firm that supplied the ingredient, is definitively linked to adverse events — the results of an investigation into an ingredient may well lead to that ingredient being ruled out as a cause of illness or injury.”
“Sharing preliminary information on the investigation may mislead consumers” into believing “a specific ingredient was the cause of an illness or outbreak when in fact it was later ruled out of being linked to an adverse event,” the FDA said.