If you're planning a vegetarian Thanksgiving, there are a lot of choices. But you might want to skip one entrée — Quorn “turk'y.” As we previously reported, some people who've eaten this fake meat have suffered violent allergic reactions. But that hasn't deterred Whole Foods Market from carrying a full line of Quorn products, from nuggets, to ground beef-ish morsels, to roasts.

The nonprofit food-safety group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says medical studies have shown that the fungal ingredient in Quorn (Fusarium venenatum) is an allergen. The group has tried to get Quorn, which is made in England, off of store shelves since the product first appeared in the United States in 2002.

Whole Foods freezer case; Credit: E. Dwass

Whole Foods freezer case; Credit: E. Dwass

Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director, told us in a recent email that the majority of customers who contacted his organization about Quorn bought it at Whole Foods. CSPI has urged the grocery chain to stop selling Quorn or, at the very least, to put warning notices on freezer cases.

Jacobson said CSPI offered to prepare such notices but was rebuffed. The watchdog group later teamed with a consumer in a lawsuit against Whole Foods and Quorn, asking the court to require warning labels, but “lost on a technicality.”

“It's disappointing,” Jacobson said, “that Whole Foods, which does such a great job in so many areas, is not protecting its customers' health with regard to Quorn.”

We asked Whole Foods about their opposition to Quorn warning labels. We also asked how many of their customers have reported adverse reactions. In response, we got this statement: “CSPI sued Whole Foods Market several years ago alleging that Quorn contained unknown allergens. No evidence was ever presented supporting CSPI's claims and the judge eventually dismissed CSPI's lawsuit on summary judgment.”

CSPI says that Quorn contradicts Whole Foods' mission to sell natural foods, because the fake meat is highly processed. It starts out as a fungus, then is transformed in giant fermentation vats where it is harvested with glucose and chemicals.

On the Quorn website, the product's main ingredient, Mycoprotein, is described as a natural, healthy protein, which is “produced using a fermentation process very similar to brewing; only we harvest the solid as opposed to the liquid. This remarkable ingredient is then used as the base for more than 100 different food products.”

Last time we wrote about Quorn concerns, a reader wondered why this is any different than, say, peanut allergies. A lot of Americans have severe reactions to peanuts, but there's no effort to ban them.

Jacobson responded: “With all the concern about allergies, it is outrageous that governments (U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, and several others) are knowingly allowing the introduction of a powerful new allergen into the food supply. That is very different from accepting the natural allergens — in peanuts, milk, soy, and other foods — that are traditional parts of our diet.”

Quorn package label; Credit: E. Dwass

Quorn package label; Credit: E. Dwass

The Food and Drug Administration requires foods containing any of nine common allergens to come with warning labels. There's no such requirement for Quorn. Packages instead carry a confusing manufacturer's caution: “Mycoprotein is high in protein and fiber. This may cause intolerance in some people.”

This doesn't address the possibility of serious allergic reactions. While CSPI says only a small percentage of consumers have reported such adverse effects, some people don't react the first time they eat the product, but then become ill from subsequent exposures. And, of course, not everyone who gets sick from Quorn reports the problem or may even be aware of the cause.

Jacobson said CSPI has received reports from more than 1,500 people who became ill after eating Quorn. We should point out that plenty of people eat Quorn without ever getting sick. There is no way to predict who will and won't react to the fungus-based product.

“Many people have told us that Quorn made them sicker than they've ever been in their lives,” said Jacobson. Symptoms range from nausea, to hives, to vomiting violent enough to burst blood vessels in the eyes and throat. Life-threatening anaphylactic reactions also have been reported.

Jacobson believes that supermarkets and the makers of Quorn don't want anything to interfere with profits. The Quorn website talks about how the company's “vision is to help consumers eat healthier and to create the world's first $1 billion meat-alternative business.”

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