(CNSNews.com) - The British food company that makes the meat substitute Quorn claims it is the victim of a conspiratorial "crusade" being conducted by one of its competitors and a consumer watchdog group.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Quorn competitor Gardenburger have denied any association with one another. Officials at both groups claim their concerns about Quorn are based solely on the public health risks associated with the meat substitute.
Quorn has been selling in Europe for 17 years, but did not arrive in the United States until January after receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Quorn Foods is a subsidiary of Marlow Foods of England. Marlow is a division of the bioscience company, AstraZeneca.
Shortly after Quorn hit the shelves in U.S. grocery stores, CSPI expressed concern about package labeling claiming that Quorn was derived from mushrooms and reports that some individuals had become sick after eating the product.
Quorn Foods is in the process of addressing the labeling concern, said Chris Samuel, a Quorn Foods vice president. Quorn is in fact derived from the edible fungi family, which includes mushrooms. But the claims that people have become sick after eating Quorn are unfounded, Samuel said.
"The CSPI has carried this crusade against us to an extreme level," Samuel said.
The allegations are not the only thing bothering Samuel. He also questioned recent correspondence between CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson and Gardenburger chairman and CEO Scott Wallace.
"I definitely think that there is an unhealthy relationship between CSPI and Gardenburger," Samuel said. "Michael Jacobson has admitted CSPI has been sharing information with Gardenburger. The evidence we have shows that was done on a preferential basis."
CSPI spokesman Jeff Cronin and Wallace confirmed that the organizations shared information, but both dismissed its relevance. Cronin said his group consulted many public health associations and other companies in addition to Gardenburger before notifying the FDA of its concerns in an Aug. 12 letter.
In the letter, Jacobson informed the FDA about more than 30 people who contacted the CSPI through its website QuornComplaints.com. Jacobson said the individuals in the United States and Britain reported a range of problems from vomiting and diarrhea to stomach pains and nausea.
As of last week, nearly 300 people, mostly from Britain, had filed reports with CSPI, Cronin said.
An FDA official confirmed the agency is investigating CSPI's complaint.
Samuel, however, called CSPI's figures "unsubstantiated." He said Quorn Foods' own statistics show that one in 146,000 consumers have a negative reaction. In addition, he said Quorn Foods has attempted on five occasions to obtain the information from CSPI to no avail.
Cronin said he was unaware of the requests. CSPI's information has since been passed along to the FDA with the names of the individuals redacted for confidentiality reasons. He said Quorn could obtain it directly from the FDA.
The head of Gardenburger took exception to Samuel's assertion that his company was conspiring with CSPI. Wallace said he has never even met Jacobson.
"This conspiracy thing is laughable," Wallace said. "We were one of the organizations that blew the whistle and now we are being made out to be the bad guys."
In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency decided last week that Quorn could remain on the market. Jon Bell, the agency's food safety policy director, wrote to CSPI that people are at a greater risk to have a negative reaction to more common foods, such as soy or shellfish, than to Quorn.
"The Food Standards Agency does not consider that, on present evidence, it would be right to prevent those people who currently enjoy this product from being able to continue to purchase it if they wish," Bell wrote.
As for claims that Quorn Foods used deceptive labeling, Samuel said the matter is being discussed with the FDA. The British Food Standards Agency, however, required Quorn to alter its labeling dealing with mushrooms.
The ongoing debate, Samuel said, is an attempt to hurt Quorn's marketability in the United States. Quorn is the leading seller of meat-free products in Europe.
But Samuel said it is CSPI's reputation that has been hurt most by reports that it worked in concert with Gardenburger.
"Any respect for the CSPI as an organization, certainly from myself and people in the trade in America, has evaporated over this issue," Samuel said. "The CSPI has lost all credibility."
Cronin said CSPI is not concerned about Samuel's attempt to shape the issue. Cronin said the organization backs up its principles by not accepting corporate funding and not running product advertisements in its magazine.
"Anyone who reads our Nutrition Action Healthletter finds us saying good things about companies and bad things about companies," Cronin said. "We said good things about tons of Gardenburger competitors. We actually said good things about Quorn products until we found out they were making people sick."
In fact, in the March issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter, CSPI reviewed 121 products from a variety of companies. Six Gardenburger items were recommended as were two products made by Quorn. Morningstar Farms and Boca products received the most endorsements.
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