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'Mushroom' Meat Comes to America - 2002-04-03

A meat substitute that's popular in Europe is now offered for sale in the United States. It's called "Quorn," although its source has nothing to do with corn. Quorn is made from a fungus. Rather than using the word "fungus," the company that sells it is calling it "mushroom in origin."

Britain's Marlow Foods has already sold nearly one billion packages of Quorn products throughout Europe over the past seventeen years. The fungus variety, called "mycoprotein," was discovered in the 1960s at a time of famine in many parts of the world. Marlow Vice President David Wilson says British scientists were looking for a new source of protein and found mycoprotein growing naturally in a field in Buckinghamshire, west of London.

"These scientists just plucked it out of the soil and then worked in the next ten years on a way of actually growing it in a way that would make it economically viable and safe for human consumption," David Wilson said. Company technicians make the Quorn product as they might make yogurt or cheese or beer. "It's grown in fermentation vats, and then it's harvested," explained Mr. Wilson. "And then we add a little bit of egg white, which helps bind the protein fiber together, and also some vegetable flavorings. And then we dice it, we cut it up, make it into 'ready meals' entrees, delicious chicken-style nuggets, beef-style ground, the whole array of food," Mr. Wilson said.

In the vats, the product looks like mushroom-colored pastry dough. Vegetable flavoring that simulates the taste of chicken or beef is added. Then the mycoprotein is lifted from the vats and chopped into nugget-size pieces or smaller bits shaped like ground beef.

Sanford Miller, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, was introduced to Quorn during its initial development stages, when he was a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and others were asked to evaluate its potential as a food source and as a market product.

"The big characteristic of Quorn is that its texture isn't spongy. You know, if you ever tasted these soybean-containing products, they're perfectly good products, but there's this textural problem," Sanford Miller explained. "So you tasted this product, and you liked it?" the reporter asked. "Oh, yeah, over the years. You know, the original products weren't so great. They never are. Food isn't food until someone eats it. Originally one of the biggest purchasers [in the United Kingdom] were non-meat eaters. Many of them came from India and Pakistan," Mr. Miller answered. Before Quorn was introduced in the United States in January, the company sent samples to the Food and Drug Administration, which gave it what's called a GRAS rating, which stands for "generally regarded as safe." A nutrition watchdog group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest also looked at Quorn, liked its taste, and gave it a "best bites" recommendation in its newsletter. But the Center's director, Michael Jacobson, has since taken issue with the labeling of Quorn products as "mushroom in origin." "When we talked to mushroom experts, they told us that this mycoprotein is as closely related to mushrooms as jellyfish are related to human beings," Mr. Jacobson said. "We have filed a complaint with the U.S. government asking that these products be removed from the shelves until the labeling is honest."

The Quorn Company's David Wilson defends the labeling. "Mycoprotein is part of the fungi family, in a similar way that truffles or morels or mushrooms are a part of the fungi family," he said. "We feel that in describing mycoprotein as 'mushroom in origin' is a really user-friendly way of helping people understand really what they're eating. That is our aim - not to deceive or confuse but to actually educate and inform." Quorn's David Wilson admits that Americans, in particular, may need a good deal of educating before they would be ready to pick up a product labeled "fungus" at the grocery store, since fungi are associated with undesirable conditions like athlete's foot. But he further defends calling Quorn a mushroom-like product. He says some consumers have a sensitivity to mushrooms and will need to avoid eating the Quorn mycoprotein.

The company is marketing Quorn, not as a health food, but as a tasty alternative for all consumers who are reducing or eliminating meat from their diets.