You might think the anti-meat food police at the Center for Science in the Public Interest would be cheering the new meat substitute Quorn.
Instead, CSPI is scaring the public and bad-mouthing Quorn to the Food and Drug Administration.
Quorn is "the processed cellular mass that is obtained from the filamentous fungus Fusarium venenatum strain PTA-2684," according to the manufacturer's application to the FDA. The fungus by-product was approved in the U.K. in 1985 and is the top-selling meat substitute in Europe.
The FDA approved Quorn in the U.S. last January. CSPI soon went into action.
Weeks later, CSPI claimed Quorn was "deceptively labeled" as originating from mushrooms and filed complaints with the FDA, and U.K. and European regulators.
In May, CSPI called Quorn the "new Olestra," alluding to the bogus CSPI-generated controversy about Procter & Gamble's fat substitute. As with Olestra, CSPI claimed Quorn was making people sick.
This month CSPI issued media releases calling for a recall and claiming Quorn was linked to "severe vomiting."
CSPI alleged in an Aug. 15 release: "One woman experienced fecal incontinence in public places, while another feared choking to death on her vomit. People have told us that they fainted in [the subway] and on the toilet, vomited out the window of a taxi, and missed work, Christmas dinners, concerts and other activities."
There is a dangerous fungus among us, but it's not Quorn. It's CSPI.
CSPI's claim that Quorn is deceptively labeled makes a mountain of a molehill.
Quorn's link with mushrooms was made to help explain the product to consumers, according to Quorn's manufacturer, Marlow Foods. Quorn is derived from a fungus and mushrooms are fungi.
CSPI wants Quorn labeled as "mold-based" -- implying that Quorn is some sort of health threat.
Quorn is currently working with the FDA to refine the description.
CSPI's health claims about Quorn are completely unfounded.
CSPI says a study filed by Marlow Foods with the FDA found up to 10 percent of 200 volunteers experienced vomiting, nausea or stomach aches after eating Quorn.
CSPI chief Michael Jacobson may want to brush up on his math, though. A closer look at the study indicates only one person might have had an adverse reaction to Quorn.
As food allergies are common, this is no reason to disparage Quorn. Many consumers are allergic to soy protein, shellfish, peanut, dairy products, and other foods. Marlow Foods estimates the adverse reaction rate for Quorn to be about 1 in 146,000 consumers.
This is 400 times lower than the adverse reaction rate for soy products and over 29,000 times lower than for lactose intolerance from dairy products.
So why is CSPI trying so carnivorously to destroy Quorn?
CSPI appears to have an unsavory relationship with Quorn competitor, Gardenburger -- a company that rails against Quorn on its Web site and pesters the FDA.
CSPI regularly promotes Gardenburger products on its Web site and publications.
In the April 1998 issue of its newsletter, for example, CSPI stated: "Remember the saturated fat and the E.coli bacteria that could be hiding inside [a hamburger]? You can keep the taste but forget the worries with Gardenburger."
CSPI recently spotlighted Flame Grilled Hamburger Style Gardenburgers as a "favorite" that "taste like they're hot off the coals."
That's from a group labeling itself as a "nonprofit education and advocacy organization that focuses on improving the safety and nutritional quality of our food."
"R-r-r-i-i-i-i-ght," as Austin Powers' Dr. Evil might say.
The president of Gardenburger e-mailed food brokers a copy of a letter sent by CSPI to the FDA supposedly documenting adverse consumer reactions to Quorn.
The e-mail asked the brokers to send the letter to retailers and notes "these are the same guys who hounded Procter & Gamble until they finally withdrew the fat substitute Olestra from sale. Net, I'd say Quorn's days are numbered …"
This cutthroat e-mail is even more sinister as it was sent to brokers the same morning CSPI sent its letter to the FDA but a week before CSPI publicly announced its findings.
CSPI even told the FDA, "… considering the plethora of tasty, nutritious meat alternatives on supermarket shelves, there is absolutely no need for [Quorn]."
CSPI's attempted mugging of Quorn is also odd since the food police usually target bigger fish like the fast food, soft drink and snack food industries.
Though CNN, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets have fallen for this scam, successful public relations may not be enough to save Gardenburger. The company's sales peaked in 1999 at $88 million and declined to $59 million in 2001.
We can only hope the same trend befalls CSPI's unscrupulous shrieking.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).