Quorn Foods settles lawsuit over controversial mycoprotein ingredient

UPDATE: Quorn Foods sent Food Dive a statement responding to the settlement:
"This was a difficult decision, as we firmly believe the facts are on our side in this matter. But as a business, we must always make judgments that are in the best interests of the company. And after careful consideration, to avoid further distractions, we determined settling was the right course of action. We take transparency seriously at Quorn. It’s why we have some of the most descriptive labels of any other food product on the market today. We do this willingly, to ensure consumers understand the ingredients in our products – which have helped millions around the world live healthy by enjoying the great taste of meat in a sustainable way for over 30 years."

Dive Brief:

  • Quorn Foods is settling a federal class action lawsuit claiming its products — meat substitutes that are made out of mold but are not labeled as such — violate California's Consumers Legal Remedies Act, California's Unfair Business Practices Act, California's False Advertising Law, and federal fraud and fraudulent concealment law, according to a website detailing the settlement.
  • This case was brought by Kimberly Birbrower, a Los Angeles resident who bought Quorn's "Chick'n" products from a Whole Foods in 2012. According to the suit, the labeling on the product made of "mycoprotein" led her to believe it was made of an ingredient similar to mushrooms or truffles, when it actually was made out of mold.
  • By settling the case, Quorn admits no wrongdoing. The company agreed to issue refunds to anyone who can prove they purchased Quorn's products between Jan. 26, 2012 and Dec. 16, 2016 — an amount that could reach up to $126 million. The company will also modify the wording on its packaging.

Dive Insight:

Since its introduction into food products, Quorn's mycoprotein has been an extremely controversial ingredient.

While mycoprotein has been given a "generally recognized as safe" designation from the Food and Drug Administration, consumer groups and other lawsuits have claimed the ingredient causes fainting, extreme nausea, severe anaphylactic reactions and even death in some consumers. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has led the charge to remove mycoprotein from the GRAS list and get it taken off the market. According to CSPI, there have been thousands of reports of adverse reactions to the ingredient.

"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,’" CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson wrote in a 2011 letter to the agency asking for the ingredient to be banned.

Since the letter was written, at least two high-profile lawsuits were filed against Quorn Foods. They include Birbrower's suit, which is being settled, and a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of 11-year-old Miles Bengco, who had a mold allergy and died of anaphylactic shock in 2013 after eating a Quorn product.

While nothing has changed in the FDA's regulation of the ingredient and mycoprotein is still allowed in food, the settlement may not end the controversy. The class action suit was brought by a consumer who did not claim to have any adverse reaction to eating the product, but felt misled by the product's labeling because she did not know mycoprotein was made from mold. The terms of the settlement forbid anyone who bought Quorn products between 2012 and 2016 from bringing legal complaints against the company unless they file for an exclusion from the settlement. (Consumers who assert claims for personal injuries from their consumption of Quorn products are automatically excluded from the settlement.)

The labeling changes agreed to in the settlement are unlikely to pacify mycoprotein's opponents. The new product description on the label removes any mention of mushrooms, truffles and morels, but says nothing about mold. Consumers are directed to the company website for more information — and the website also will be scrubbed of any reference to mushrooms, truffles and morels. The product's allergy statement will move to a more prominent place on the box and specifically say mycoprotein is a mold.

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Filed Under: Manufacturing Ingredients Packaging / Labeling
Top image credit: Angie Six