Natural foods retailer Whole Foods Market is named in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), charging that it sells a deceptively labeled fungus-based meat substitute manufactured by Quorn Foods, also named in the suit. CSPI says more lawsuits will follow.
CSPI's suit charges that Avery Goodman purchased Quorn Naked Cutlets from Austin-based Whole Foods in September 2004. Shortly after eating the product, Goodman experienced a five-hour-long bout of stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, followed by two days of stomach pain.
In response to a complaint from Goodman, Quorn Foods acknowledged that Quorn causes "allergic and adverse reactions" but rebuffed his suggestion that the company place warning labels on its products.
Goodman is asking the court to require warning labels on Quorn packages and on Whole Foods' freezer cases. He is seeking a refund of the small amount of money he spent purchasing the Quorn, and is asking that his suit be certified as a class action so others could get refunds as well.
CSPI says it is the first of what's likely to be a series of lawsuits, as it turns to the courts to stop deceptive labeling, fraudulent advertising, and the use of dangerous food additives. CSPI recently hired Stephen Gardner, a former assistant attorney general in New York and Texas, to direct its litigation efforts, which the group says are necessary since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have done a poor job enforcing the law in these areas.
Quorn -- sold nationally in Great Britain since 1995 -- was introduced in the U.S. in 2002, positioning itself as a healthful alternative to meat products. Its packaging calls the main ingredient "mycoprotein," which the label describes as being related to mushrooms, morels, and truffles.
In fact, mycoprotein is made from a fungus that is more akin to mildew than mushrooms, according to CSPI. Quorn's parent company, Marlow Foods, grows this fungus in giant vats, harvests it, and processes it to resemble chicken or ground beef.
The larger problem with Quorn is that it causes allergic reactions in several percent of consumers. Many who eat Quorn foods will develop unsavory gastrointestinal symptoms such as the ones Goodman experienced, or even more serious, potentially life-threatening symptoms characteristic of anaphylactic shock.
CSPI has repeatedly called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recall and ban Quorn, or at least require warning labels on it, but to no avail. Notwithstanding the reactions Quorn causes, the FDA has accepted the company's contention that the product is "Generally Recognized as Safe," or GRAS.
In total, 169 Americans and almost 700 people in Britain and elsewhere have reported adverse reactions to Quorn products after finding a CSPI web site, www.quorncomplaints.com. Plaintiff Goodman says that he could have avoided his ordeal if there was a warning label, either on the package or on the freezer case in Whole Foods.
"Whole Foods doesn't seem to care about the misery some people suffer after eating Quorn," said Goodman. "Apparently, they knew about the adverse effects before they sold it to me. Yet, they aggressively promoted it without any warning notice whatsoever. Is Whole Foods a reputable store? I'm not sure. I feel betrayed by the makers of Quorn, Whole Foods, and the FDA. They all knew about the danger of this 'health food,' but never bothered to let me know."
The suit was filed in Travis County District Court, in Whole Foods' hometown of Austin, Texas, under Texas' Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Local attorney Austin Tighe of the law firm of Feazell & Tighe is co-counsel on the case.
"This is a case where both Quorn Foods and Whole Foods know that this particular product literally makes people sick, yet they do nothing to warn consumers," said CSPI's Gardner. "The purpose of this lawsuit, and similar suits we intend to file, is to stop that kind of reckless corporate misbehavior."
CSPI says that it hopes that its overall litigation initiative will encourage companies on their own to ensure that their products are safe and accurately labeled and advertised.
Separately, CSPI recently negotiated some labeling changes with PepsiCo's Quaker Foods unit, eliminating the need to file a planned lawsuit. The products at issue include Quaker instant oatmeals with names such as "Strawberries & Cream" and "Peaches & Cream." The labels, however, do not make clear that those products have none of the advertised strawberries, peaches, or, for that matter, cream.
Similarly, varieties of Quaker instant grits are branded "Country Bacon," "Real Butter," and "Ham 'n Cheese," yet those products have no bacon, butter, or ham, and virtually no cheese. Quaker, which was already considering revising its instant oatmeal labels, agreed to several of CSPI's suggested improvements. The new labels will more clearly state that these products are artificially flavored.
"It is our hope that CSPI will be able to work with companies to iron out problems, obviating the need for litigation and expediting benefits to consumers," said Gardner.
Also, CSPI has joined in a proposed class action lawsuit against the maker of Arizona Iced Tea. Led by Houston trial attorney Martin J. Siegel, this suit contends that the company is making fraudulent claims on the labels of its "Arizona Rx" line of drinks.
Those products' labels variously indicate the presence of popular herbal ingredients such as echinacea, gingko biloba, valerian, ginseng, and sometimes vitamins. According to independent laboratory tests, the drinks had barely detectable levels of those ingredients. And according to CSPI, there is little or no evidence if any dose of those herbs and nutrients delivers the enhanced memory, reduced stress, or other health benefits that the company implies its drinks deliver.
"The Food and Drug Administration has the authority to correct these kinds of deceptive claims on food labels, but despite our many complaints over many years, the agency has rarely acted," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "So long as the FDA keeps napping, we'll be hauling more and more food companies into court to protect consumers from fraud."