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IMG: Gersh Kuntzman
There’s a Fungus Among Us  
Is it a mushroom? Or is it mold? Our columnist devours Quorn, a new fungus-based food that’s growing on consumers everywhere.  

    May 20 —  Who knew that mold could be so mouth-watering?  

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  I’M TALKING ABOUT Quorn, a new meat substitute from England that recently began showing up in American grocery stores—and later in the headlines.

        “Sounds Like Corn, Tastes Like Chicken,” said the Washington Post. “But It’s Made From... Are Sure You Want to Know?”
        “What’s in Those Nuggets?” the New York Times asked two months later. “Meat Substitute Stirs Debate.”
        Here’s the “debate” in a nutshell (or, in this case, under a thick, garlicky breading): Quorn Foods claims that the main ingredient in its frozen Quorn nuggets, Quorn tenders, Quorn cutlets and even Quorn lasagna—a fungus known as Fusarium venenatum—is “mushroom in origin.” But to the food watchdogs, Fusarium venenatum is something closer on the evolutionary scale to the mold in a frathouse shower during a janitors’ strike. A long janitors’ strike.
        As a “top” “journalist” who has eaten guinea pigs, frogs and bull testicles (the testicles weren’t for a story, mind you; they were just for fun), clearly, I had to get some Quorn—”The Other White Mold”—into my belly.
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        The package touted Quorn’s health benefits—Low fat! High protein! No cholesterol! Half the calories of chicken! A great hockey puck!—but I was still skeptical. So as I popped a Quorn cutlet into the oven, I prepared myself for the kind of disappointment I experienced the last time I test-ate a meat substitute. (I have only recently recovered from internal injuries sustained in that 1999 encounter with Tofu Pups.)
        But Quorn impressed me. Hey, mold or not, this chicken-substitute was good eatin’. It’s not spongy like soy-based faux meat or mealy like textured vegetable protein. In fact, Quorn was juicy and actually had a chickeny grain. I wouldn’t want to see Kentucky Fried Quorn franchises spring up all over the country, but I can wholeheartedly endorse Quorn as a high-quality, mold-based meat substitute. (Full disclosure? I am not, repeat not, receiving financial support from the American Edible Mold Association, a powerful Washington lobbying group.)
        For me, there’s usually no arguing with a satisfied stomach. Yet something still bothered me about Quorn’s packaging, which euphemistically referred to Fusarium venenatum as “mushroom in origin.”
        “It’s totally deceptive,’” said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a self-styled advocacy group that has, over the years, infuriated movie popcorn fans (tropical oils!), cola drinkers (too many calories!), Chinese food eaters (too much fat!), coffee addicts (too much fun!) and oyster fans (“Death on the Half Shell!” ). The CSPI has filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration, as well as its British counterpart, demanding that Quorn be relabeled to reflect its fungal roots.
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        “It’s not that I have anything against fungi,” Jacobson said, putting to rest the allegation (mine) that fungism is rampant throughout his organization. “But let’s call a fungus a fungus. The public should not be deceived into thinking that Quorn is shredded mushrooms. The package should say ‘fungus,’ or ‘processed fungus’ or even ‘processed mold.’”
        Jacobson is nothing if not a good news whore. Needing a tasty soundbite so he could get the story on the 6 o’clock news, he called up three Penn State mycologists—that’s mushroom experts to you and me—and got them to declare that calling Quorn a mushroom product was like “calling a rat a chicken because both are animals.”
        I needed independent confirmation, so I called my own private mycologist (some people have gastroenterologists or proctologists, I have a mycologist), David Fischer, author of the indispensable “Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide.” (For the record: Fusarium venenatum appears in neither the “field” nor “kitchen” part of Fischer’s guide.)
        “It’s a mold, basically,” Fischer said. “To my knowledge—and my knowledge is not insignificant in this area—you cannot use the word ‘mushroom’ to describe Fusarium venenatum. They are redefining the word ‘mushroom’ for aesthetic purposes. If F. venenatum is a mushroom, I’m a platypus.”

        That’s even harsher than the New York Times piece, which said Fusarium venenatum “grows in dirt and on grain, forming fine filaments and sometimes pinkish fuzz. It never sprouts anything that looks even remotely like a mushroom.”
        Man, compared to Quorn, Soylent Green was a PR man’s dream! Sure, Americans love pinkish fuzz—but on drag queens or baby clothes, not on a bun with ketchup and lettuce.
        With Quorn is in the middle of a marketing nightmare, I called David Wilson, vice president and general manager of Quorn Foods, to find out how he’s sleeping.
        “This whole fungi-mushroom debate is not on our radar screen,” Wilson said. “We’ve been selling this product for 17 years in England.” Besides, he added, Quorn Foods only goes so far as to call Quorn “mushroom in origin.”
        “By using that phrase,” Wilson said, “we’re really just helping consumers understand what Quorn is while relating it to a familiar food.”
        I can see his point. For years, I’ve been marketing my writing as “Joycian in origin,” which, I’ve found, really helps consumers understand what Gersh Kuntzman is while relating me to a familiar author.

        For Wilson, the whole thing has become a “You say ‘tomahto,’ I say ‘fungus’” comic farce—with his company as the moldy punching bag. But Wilson slugged back, lending a bit of corporate cloak-and-dagger to his company’s mushrooming marketing problems.
        “We know there is some kind of collusion going on between CSPI and our main competitor, Garden Burger,” Wilson said. “The day the CSPI sent its complaint to the FDA, it also gave the documents to Garden Burger, which then sent it around to retailers to get them to stop buying our product. It raises the question: Is CSPI working with Garden Burger for a commercial agenda?”
        Well, I asked Wilson, are they?
        Wilson was clever enough to make his bombshell allegations late on a Friday afternoon, so I was unable to reach Jacobson’s supposed corporate puppetmasters at Garden Burger for a response. (For the record, I find Garden Burgers—which really are made from mushrooms—dry, crumbly and as tasty as a hotdog that’s been rolling around on a 7-11 grill for three days.)

        But when Jacobson was reached, he had a counter-attack for Wilson: Concerned that a new fungus in our food supply would set off a wave of food allergies, CSPI has been tracking peoples’ adverse reactions to Quorn since March. Jacobson said 15 people have already complained to CSPI about vomiting, diarrhea, hives and, in one case, a swollen throat that inhibited a man’s breathing. (What is it with the English? First, Mad Cow Disease, now Mad Mold Syndrome.)
        Jacobson said that such complaints are evidence that Quorn should not be on the market. But when I reminded him that allergic reactions to peanuts and strawberries, for example, actually kill people, he claimed that if peanuts were being marketed for the first time today, they wouldn’t be allowed to be sold because they’re just too dangerous.
        “Peanuts are already on the market and everyone knows the risk,” he said. “Quorn consumers don’t.”
        But while Jacobson hungered for justice, I just hungered. Sorry, Mike, but can you pass me some of that yummy mold?

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at http://www.gersh.tv/
       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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