Food Fight

January 01, 2002  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Forbes  ·  Nutrition

Tony Soprano has nothing on the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Fresh from deep-sixing Olestra, Procter & Gamble’s noncaloric fat substitute, it’s now trying to whack a popular and healthy meat substitute called Quorn, from U.K.-based Marlow Foods Ltd., a unit of AstraZeneca. Made from a fungus called "mycoprotein," it’s used in 90 imitation beef and chicken products and is Europe’s top-selling meat alternative.

CSPI attacks the meat substitute Quorn with substitute science.

No matter that Quorn received approval from the Food & Drug Administration early this year, after a rigorous five-year process. "This product was cavalierly waved through by the FDA with an alarming lack of curiosity," says the center’s executive director, Michael Jacobson, "considering that the FDA knew a study showed that this product would make some people violently sick." It petitioned not only the FDA but also European health agencies to yank all Quorn products.

The British Food Standards Agency rejected the center’s petition, noting that confirmed reactions seemed to occur about once per 146,000 mycoprotein customers — a figure, admittedly, supplied by Marlow. But the agency also noted that allergic reactions occur about once in 300 times for soybeans, the prime ingredient in many meat substitutes.

Jacobson wrote in his newsletter that "the only human study of Quorn" Marlow submitted to the FDA "shows nearly 10% of the people who ate Quorn [felt] nauseated"; this was picked up by the Associated Press. Yet, at about the same time, the center sent the FDA a letter noting the agency had evaluated four human studies back in 1999. Jacobson now insists the study he chose "was the only one I knew of at the time." Did he interpret it correctly? The study showed virtually the same symptoms among mycoprotein eaters and a placebo group; its one confirmed reaction in 200 subjects, say the study’s authors, probably wasn’t related to the food.

Mycoprotein actually seems to reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol, raise HDL ("good") cholesterol and lower postmeal appetites, according to Sanford Miller, former FDA director of the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition.

So what’s the CSPI’s real beef? Perhaps it can be found in its assertion to the FDA that "considering the plethora of tasty, nutritious meat alternatives on supermarket shelves, there is absolutely no need for [Quorn]." The center has long been a booster of Gardenburger, the money losing, substitute-meat maker. The company has returned the favor. In the acknowledgments to his vegan cookbook, Garden Cuisine, Paul Wenner, Gardenburger’s chief creative officer, names Mahatma Gandhi, Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson — and Michael Jacobson. As its stock began a 74% dive in April, Gardenburger e-mailed food brokers a copy of CSPI’s letter to the FDA documenting alleged reactions to Quorn — before the FDA could respond — and speculated that "Quorn’s days are numbered." Gardenburger is not getting favorable treatment, the center says.

Still, saving Gardenburger’s bacon would be a coup for the center. But neither science nor the public interest would be served.