An American lobbying group has been campaigning for almost a decade to have Quorn accepted as a major food allergen.

Quorn is the brand name for a line of foods made with “mycoprotein,” which comes from the mold Fusarium venenatum. It was launched on to the UK market in the mid 1980s and was introduced into the US in 2002. The UK Food Standards Agency says rigorous safety assessments were undertaken before Quorn was approved over here.

In 2003 the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy organisation based in Washington DC, began to raise concerns. The CSPI said it had received 597 reports of adverse reactions through a website and by mail. These included 85 per cent from the UK, 14 per cent from the United States, and one per cent from elsewhere in Europe. Some reports were said to be supported by further correspondence or telephone calls. The CSPI questioned the wisdom of introducing Quorn in the first place.

The organization has continued its campaign. In 2010 the CPSI said 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."

In our view, based on current knowledge, the dangers of Quorn seem to have been over-stated. Allergy to Quorn is bound to exist, but its prevalence would appear to be low. The Anaphylaxis Campaign can find no evidence to verify the CSPI’s contention that Quorn is a common food allergen. In 2003 our database of 7,503 people included only one person with suspected Quorn allergy. In 2010 the number was two.

It is impossible to verify the cases cited by the CSPI without the subjects being properly diagnosed.  Were they in fact symptoms of intolerance? Was something else to blame for the symptoms? Of course, allergy cannot be ruled out in some cases. There is some suggestion from two published reports, each looking at single individuals, that initial sensitisation may occur to mold spores via the respiratory tract, and subsequent oral ingestion of cross-reactive proteins found in mycoprotein may lead to allergic reactions.

Public statement by an expert panel

In January 2011 Marlow Foods, the company that makes Quorn, convened a one-off independent expert panel in London to discuss consumer reports of adverse reactions to mycoprotein.

The panel concluded:

  • The number of reported adverse reactions to mycoprotein is very low and it is likely that most of these incidents relate to the high fibre content. Mycoprotein provides around 5.5g of dietary fibre in 100g of Quorn mince or pieces. The Panel hypothesised that, in certain individuals or under certain conditions, consuming mycoprotein could speed up the normal transit of foods from the small to the large intestine. This could, in turn, cause the fibre in mycoprotein to be fermented very rapidly in the large intestine, leading to symptoms of gastro-intestinal distress of the type reported by some consumers. The small numbers of consumers at risk from this type of gut response may have an imbalance in their normal gut bacteria, an unusual dietary intake of fibre (too low or too high) or may suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.
  • True allergic reaction to mycoprotein is extremely rare and the frequency is substantially less than for any of the recognised allergens such as egg, wheat or soya.

The panel recommended to Marlow Foods that it should improve how data on adverse reactions are collected in order to understand better which types of consumers may be susceptible. Marlow Foods said it had taken on board this recommendation.