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12.3.04

Mmm ... Unnatural Mold

A Food Fight Over A Fungus

... What comes out at the end is a matter of perspective — luscious artificial meat patties that taste just like moist chicken, or dangerous vat-grown "vomit-burgers" that are sickening consumers from coast to coast.

The product is Quorn, a fungus-based meat substitute that millions of Europeans have eaten for years. It entered the U.S. market in 2002 to rave reviews by consumers, but was quickly met with a dogged anti-Quorn campaign by an influential consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Michael Jacobson, the CSPI's executive director, claims that Quorn, which he derisively terms an "odious" "mold"-based product, makes people ill — and he wants every last nugget expunged from American soil.

... "Quorn is about as far from natural as you can get," Jacobson recently wrote. "There is an abundance of healthful meat alternatives made with things that come from farms, like soybeans, mushrooms, rice …. If you're going to sell a food that comes from a lab, a test tube, or a giant vat, it should at least not make so many people sick."


I'm in no position to judge the scientific evidence about the safety of Quorn, although banning it seems excessive -- why not treat it like any other allergen, like peanuts or milk, that stay on the shelf but are clearly labeled so that affected people can plan their diets accordingly?

What makes me distrust Jacobson is his resort to rhetoric about unnaturalness. Take his comparison between soy-based meat substitutes and Quorn. Soy is grown on a farm, but soy farming is about as unnatural as a farm can get -- huge stretches of monoculture (in the US, often planted with genetically modified plants, or at least high-tech hybrids) tilled and harvested with huge machines and treated with industrial fertilizers and pesticides. But even if you buy organic soy meat, Gardenburgers don't grow themselves. After harvest, the soybeans have to be taken to a lab where they're extensively processed to make the meatlike products that end up on store shelves. There's nothing in the degree of processing involved that would favor soy over Quorn.

The "mold" issue is a little less objectionable, as "mold" connotes "possible allergen" better than "mushroom" (the company's original description). "Mold" may be a bit unfairly loaded, though -- after all, penicilin and blue cheese are molds, too.

The problem is that "unnatural" and "mold," while rhetorically suggestive, don't speak directly to the question at issue: do people actually get sick from eating Quorn? I'd happily eat the moldiest, most unnatural thing if direct investiagtion of its health qualities had vindicated it. Then again, if you feel that powerful food companies and uncaring bureaucracies are arrayed against you, perhaps you have to fight dirty in order to get public opinion to back you up. Would the L.A. Times have even written this article if Jacobson had spoken in a more scientific manner?

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