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A Food Fight Over a Fungus

Quorn, a substitute for meat, has been eaten by millions in Europe, but a U.S. activist says the 'odious' product is literally sickening.

March 12, 2004|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

STOKESLEY, England — 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.

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."

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

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.

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