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Parents’ lawsuit says Quorn mold-based food product killed their 11-year-old son

FILE: Quorn Chik’n Nuggets, on July, 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. Thousands of consumers say a protein-rich fungus in Quorn products has caused them to experience allergic reactions and severe bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. The manufacturer says allergic reactions are rare and that their vegetarian product line is safe and healthy. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Parents of an 11-year-old boy filed a lawsuit Wednesday against food manufacturer Quorn Foods Inc., saying the mold-based product it makes caused his death, records show.

Ann Marie Cote, of Long Beach, Calif., said her son, Miles Bengco, was allergic to mold and suffered a fatal, “severe anaphylactic reaction” in June 2013 to the fungus contained in Quorn’s Turk’y Burger, the lawsuit alleges.

Quorn products are made from a protein-rich fungus the company makes in large fermentation vats, company and U.S. Food and Drug Administration records show.

The lawsuit says that the product was “effectively a deadly poison for him…All desperate medical measures undertaken thereafter were unavailing. Neither Miles’ family nor his emergency doctors knew or had any reason to suspect that Miles was reacting to his ingestion of a massive amount of mold.”

In a prepared statement to The Washington Post, Quorn Foods said it “joins families everywhere in expressing our deepest sympathy over the tragic passing of Miles Bengco…However, we categorically reject the claims made by the Bengco family that our products were in any way associated with this tragic event. ”

The company also said the boy’s autopsy report concluded that he died of an asthma attack and noted that “he suffered from ‘poorly- controlled’ asthma so severe that it caused him to be hospitalized on at least ten separate occasions through his young life…”

The FDA, which in 2002 signed off on the company’s safety studies on the fungal ingredient that Quorn calls “mycoprotein,” declined comment.

Safety concerns surrounding Quorn products was a part of an August 2014 Post article on the FDA and food additives. The Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) began alerting the FDA to complaints it was hearing from consumers in 2003 regarding Quorn. To date, it has received more than 2,000 complaints of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hives and breathing difficulties that consumers say they experienced after eating Quorn products.

[Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes]

During the Wednesday press conference, Cote said that within minutes of eating the product her son stopped breathing. “He turned blue, he turned green, he turned completely white,” she said, crying. Paramedics were able to briefly revive the boy but he died the next day.

The lawsuit also says that at the time Cote purchased the Quorn product, the label did not say it contained mold. It likened the fungal ingredient to “varieties of mushroom, truffles, and morels,” records show. The current label on Quorn products still describe the fungal ingredient in this manner, but also say it is “a member of  the fungi/mold family.”

Quorn Foods statement to the Post also said its product’s safety “has been validated by the world’s most stringent food safety regulators. These include, among others, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the UK Food Standards Agency. And since 1985, over three billion meals have been sold – with no associated fatalities whatsoever.”

“We sympathize with the Bengco family and the tragic loss that they have endured, but their attempt to ameliorate this tragedy by way of a lawsuit against Quorn Foods is misguided,” the statement said in its conclusion. “We will, vigorously defend our company, and the safety of our products, against these allegations.