Australian officials are being urged to prohibit the sale of Quorn brand meat substitutes, which are made from a fungus grown in giant vats, from whence a protein-rich paste is harvested. The paste is then processed into strips or chunks designed to resemble chicken, ground beef, or other foods.

But, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a significant percentage of consumers suffer allergic reactions after eating the fake meats, with the most common symptoms being nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Some consumers experience potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reactions, including swelling of the throat and difficulty breathing. A CSPI survey in the United Kingdom found that a higher percentage of people are sensitive to Quorn foods than are allergic to peanuts, milk, or shellfish, several common allergens.

On sale for several years in the United States and longer in Europe, Quorn's fungus is now being sold Down Under for the first time.

"I urge you to protect Australians from powerfully allergenic Quorn foods -- that are marketed as if they were health foods -- by barring their sale," wrote CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a letter to Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. "At the very least, a prominent notice on the fronts of packages should advise consumers that the products can cause serious and potentially fatal allergic reactions."

Reports of illness

Australian Joanne Roberts, of Frankston North, Victoria, first purchased Quorn Lasagna at Woolworth's. Almost immediately, the 41-year-old homemaker realized something was not quite right. First came a gnawing pain in her upper abdomen, and then burping. Then, a tingling feeling in her limbs. Over the next six hours, she suffered severe and sometimes sudden vomiting. Following that, equally severe diarrhea -- watery at first, then bloody. After various medications eased those symptoms, cramping and fatigue lingered in Roberts for a week.

"It's such a shame that an alternative for vegetarians is so harmful to my health," Roberts said. "This product should have been checked more before being released upon the public."

Donna-Marie Bradtke, a 47-year-old weight-loss consultant from Perth, had similar experiences after eating Quorn Southern Style Burgers, which she purchased from the retailer Coles. "I had such violent vomiting that my throat seemed to close and I really thought I was going to choke. I am very worried that someone old or very young may eat this product and have the same adverse reaction," Bradtke said.

Here in the U.S., Anne of Long Beach, CA, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she purchased Quorn meatless chicken cutlets from Whole foods. "The product states that it is made from mushrooms so my husband and I thought we would try it. I cooked the cutlets according to the directions and about an hour later my husband started throwing up a lot. I felt completely fine. I cooked the cutlets with eggplant and bok choy and I thought maybe there was something wrong with some aspect of the dinner I made. We really thought nothing of it." The following month, she says "I saw that Quorn has a product called 'grounds' meatless ground meat. I thought perfect -- this is what I will use on the taco salad. I made him (my husband) taco salad for his birthday dinner and about an hour later he started throwing up, but this time it was really scary. He threw up for slightly over two hours, it was violent, he was pale he was shaking and he began to wheeze." Ann says she did an Internet search on Quorn "and was horrified to read all the people who had the exact same reaction as my husband. It turns out that it is an allergic reaction to the product and it is not made from mushrooms but mold created in vats. There is nothing on the package that says if you are allergic to mold to not eat their product." She says when she asked a company representative why there is no mold warning on the package, she was told, "because it is such a small population of people who have the reaction your husband did we do not want to alarm the general public."

A tip-off?

Quorn's fungus is a strain of mold found in the 1960s in a British dirt sample. Scientists found that the fungus could be cultivated in fermentation vats and turned into an inexpensive source of protein. The name of the fungus, Fusarium venenatum, might have tipped off scientists and food safety officials: venenatum is Latin for "filled with venom."

But early Quorn marketing materials sought to convey a relationship with more desirable fungi, such as mushrooms and morels. But that relationship turned out to be more distant than consumers were led to believe. One mycologist-a fungus expert-said that calling Quorn a mushroom was like "calling a rat a chicken because both are animals." Another expert in fungal taxonomy told CSPI that "mushrooms are as distantly related to Quorn's fungus as humans are to jellyfish."

"We were disappointed that food safety authorities in the U.S. and the U.K. would so quickly and incuriously welcome a brand new and powerful allergen into the human food supply, when the limited amount of testing that had been done raised so many red flags," Jacobson said. "Unfortunately, notwithstanding all the evidence that Quorn foods are harmful, the Australian government has done the same thing."

Quorn comes in many forms, including artificial chicken patties and nuggets, turkey-like cylindrical "Roasts," and meat-free analogues of several British delicacies like "Cornish Pasties" and "Toad in the Hole." Quorn's Web site says that dishes such as "Quorn Schnitzels Cheese and Spinach" are now available at Woolworth's, Coles, and other Australian grocers.

CSPI's campaign

CSPI has been trying to get Quorn off of American and British supermarket shelves since 2002. Lawyers for the nonprofit group are presently representing an American woman who became violently ill after eating Quorn "Chik'n Patties." Her lawsuit seeks to compel the company to place notices on Quorn labels warning consumers about the adverse reactions. CSPI has also been collecting adverse reaction reports online (more than 1,500 to date), and recently began receiving reports from worried Australian consumers.

Debra Connell of Melbourne was home with her three-and-a-half year-old twins when she became ill with vomiting, diarrhea, and a red rash after eating Quorn Lasagna. She says she's a careful label reader, but had no idea what to expect from eating "mycoprotein."

"It took two days for my constricted chest, coughing, and burning sensation in my chest to subside," Connell said, adding that "I'm beginning to wonder if there are going to be life-long side effects from eating Quorn."

As of now, the web site for Food Standards Australia & New Zealand claims "Reported cases of adverse events gastrointestinal disturbance and allergy) are very rare. No safety concerns identified."