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Feeling Queasy

Sick Talk on TikTok

We pay more attention when influencers are hospitalized after something they ate. But foodborne illness is incredibly common in the United States. Why is that?

Earlier this summer, TikTok users started describing strange symptoms after eating French Lentil + Leek Crumbles, a new product from the vegan food company Daily Harvest. The company received hundreds of reports of illness, and in June, it recalled the product. The Daily Harvest fiasco got special attention because people were reporting their problems on social media, but foodborne illness is far from unusual in the United States. Every year, millions of Americans get sick from something they ate. On episode 52 of The Politics of Everything, Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk with New York Times writer Madison Malone Kircher and Helena Bottemiller Evich, the author of the food policy newsletter Food Fix, about what exactly happened in the Daily Harvest scandal and why food poisoning is so common in this country.

Abigail Silverman [TikTok clip]: I’m literally shaking right now. Please just stay and listen to this because it’s really, really important.

Laura: In June, Abigail Silverman posted this PSA on her TikTok. She’d eaten a package of Lentil + Leek Crumbles from the vegan food company Daily Harvest.

Abigail Silverman [clip]: The following day, I started having extreme stomach and gastro pain and went to the hospital, the E.R., in the middle of the night. When I was in the E.R., they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had elevated liver levels, and then there was some bacteria in my ear and they thought I had a UTI, gave me antibiotics for five days, I went home. The five days of antibiotics go by, and then immediately I started getting this pain again, but it was even worse, and I had a 101.8 fever.

Laura: Abigail was far from the only person to get very sick after eating the crumbles. Her TikTok was flooded with comments. Other creators on TikTok were posting their own videos about being sick. Daily Harvest received hundreds of reports of illness. Over 100 people were hospitalized. The company is now also facing a class action lawsuit.

Alex: The story is strange on several levels. Most people don’t really know what “crumbles” are.

Laura: Daily Harvest also projected this aspirational lifestyle—healthy living was its brand. But suddenly people were having these horrible symptoms.

Alex: What might be most surprising is that this type of outbreak is not even that unusual in the United States. Romaine lettuce has been linked to recent outbreaks of E. coli and listeria. And earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration traced cases of hepatitis A across multiple states to fresh organic strawberries.

Laura: The Daily Harvest fiasco is a mystery within a mystery. There’s the question of how something as harmless-seeming as lentils and leeks could lead to hospitalization, as well as a bigger question: Why are so many foods causing illness?

Laura: I’m Laura Marsh.

Alex: And I’m Alex Pareene.

Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.

Laura: The first thing we want to unravel is what exactly happened at Daily Harvest. We’re talking with Madison Malone Kircher. She’s a reporter at The New York Times who followed the crumble situation as it developed on ICYMI, the podcast she used to co-host. Madison, we saw signs of a problem at Daily Harvest earlier this year. What food are we talking about?

Madison Malone Kircher: We are talking about what is now known infamously as the French Lentil + Leek Crumble. And it is important to note that the “and” is stylized like a plus sign. Stylization of branding is very important to Daily Harvest.

Laura: So this was, like, aspirational food.

Madison: Totally. The entire brand is driven by beautiful, clean aesthetics. Gwyneth Paltrow was an investor—that’s the energy we’re talking about. And so the French Lentil + Leek Crumbles—say that five times fast—were one of their newer products. Some P.R. packages had gone out to folks to try them. People had started purchasing the crumbles and, coincidentally, around the same time, people eating them started to get sick—really, really sick—like immediately after consuming these crumbles. So people started to think, “Huh. Maybe they’re connected.”

Alex: I don’t normally think of food arriving via P.R., but P.R. packages of food went to people. What sort of people did these P.R. packages of food go to?

Madison: We’re talking about influencers and content creators when we talk about who’s getting these P.R. packages. So anyone who has enough of a platform that Daily Harvest would think, “Hey, if we send them this food, maybe they’ll cook it and eat it and talk about it on their platforms and advertise it for us.”

Laura: And so when we’re talking about people getting sick, we are not just talking about your, like, run-of-the-mill food poisoning: felt a bit iffy the next day.

Madison: That’s the best-case scenario, if you ate these things. The worst-case scenario is you’re one of the reported 25 people who had their gallbladders removed as a result. People were headed to the hospitals with elevated liver levels, intense stomach pain, fevers, basically constellations of symptoms that their doctors could not explain, which led to a number of them saying, “OK, we’ll try your gallbladder.”

Laura: Wow, OK. So if you are one of these incredibly unlucky people having really severe illness, you know you are sick, but how did we trace this as an outbreak? How do you connect those people and say, “Oh, I think that the source of this is Daily Harvest, rather than just assuming, “Oh, those oysters or seafood I had was off.”

Madison: The short answer is TikTok. So what’s funny about this story to me is that it started out very personally. A friend of mine who was an influencer was hospitalized for a mysterious illness, and now is down a gallbladder. And he discovered the connection the same way the rest of us did, from a woman named Abby Silverman. She works for Cosmopolitan, and she had received one of these P.R. packages. And in the TikTok, she said, I threw it out after I ate it and went to the hospital with some of the worst G.I. pain I’ve ever experienced. I don’t totally know if this is what happened, but I would not eat these if I were you, and I feel it’s important I tell people. And that blew up and created sort of a community of lentil eaters who used that TikTok and its comment section to connect and discuss and start to piece together timelines and lists of symptoms, all the while they were waiting for really concrete answers from Daily Harvest.

Alex: This was all happening organically in the absence of any official word, either from Daily Harvest or, say, from the traditional press or from the government, correct?

Madison: Exactly. Daily Harvest initially, in my opinion, very much bungled how they handled this, because they started off with an email, but, you know, who checks their email? Especially from a company you buy things from, and linked to an Instagram post with a photo of another food that they sell, a noncontaminated food. And the caption was something to the effect of “Check out our link in bio for important information about the Crumbles.”

Laura: Oh, wow. Which could have been, plausibly, “The important information is they’re really tasty and it’s ‘Buy one great one free’ this week.” That’s what I would assume if I saw that from a brand on Instagram.

Alex: I would not expect a link to an emergency recall in bio. I would expect a little bit more upfront information than that.

Madison: At least a siren emoji or two, maybe the puking face?

Laura: Yeah, or the “solemn” genre of Instagram posts that’s like, “We’ve had some time to reflect ...”

Madison: And they did eventually remove that post and post a different one in sort of a better tone, no picture. As the process has gone on, they have got much better at handling the communication. But I think that initial attempt made the customer base feel like they could not trust Daily Harvest in a way that we don’t react to other food recalls because, let’s be honest, how many times this year have you heard that something in your crisper—your lettuce or your jar of peanut butter—could kill you and you can’t eat it? This happens all the time. It’s not uncommon to have a food recall. What’s uncommon is this direct-to-consumer brand that sort of didn’t immediately say, “Hey, don’t eat that.”

Alex: We should get into the brand here before we get into more of the details, because that’s sort of important. If there’s a Bibb lettuce recall, I don’t feel betrayed by Bibb lettuce. I don’t feel like, “Bibb lettuce, I thought I could trust you, and this is what you’ve done.” What kind of company is Daily Harvest? How do they sell themselves?

Madison: Daily Harvest was founded in 2015, and it is a clean-eating, vegan, direct- to-consumer, “You wanna eat healthy, but you don’t have the time and energy because you’re a busy girl boss, we got you covered, we will mail you your little smoothie cups, the cups are biodegradable because that’s the energy we’re talking.” And it’s an internet-native company—gorgeous Instagram ads, beautifully lit beautiful homes. Aesthetic aspiration, I think, is a good way to describe it. They are also a wildly successful company. They were labeled as a unicorn in 2021, and caveats apply when we throw that term around, but we are talking about a valuation of just north of a billion dollars. This is not a tiny smoothie operation. This is a very legitimate enterprise.

Laura: Do you think the fact that the company had all this really appealing marketing made the story more appealing when it came out that people were getting food poisoning? Like, do you think there’s sort of a tendency for people to poke at the aspirations of people who are into this clean living, plant-based-diet stuff and especially people who are on social media projecting a certain lifestyle?

Madison: Absolutely. And I think that projection is really important. When you shop at Daily Harvest and you’re paying a premium for this quote-unquote healthy, beautiful, aspirational food, the stakes are a little higher. And if you fell for it, it’s a little easier to poke at.

Laura: Usually when we hear about mass illness, like an outbreak of a severe illness, the reaction is unalloyed sympathy.

Alex: Yeah, people usually don’t feel schadenfreude or think it’s funny; they don’t usually joke around about a mass recall with health. I mean, maybe we’re being too glib here too, but there are reasons why you can’t help but find it at least slightly amusing.

Madison: Well, we do have to address the names. First of all, the organ harvest joke writes itself. It’s not great. And I do think the morbid curiosity we’re describing of people being more interested in this because it is a bougie brand of sorts was paired with a lot of sympathy and concern. In talking to my friend who lost his gallbladder and in watching TikToks and content from other people, it does really feel like this community has rallied behind its own, especially given the number of lawsuits that are now underway.

Laura: I wanna go back to the TikTok aspect of this. So I don’t spend a lot of time on TikTok, but I am aware of TikTok having a scarily efficient algorithm that funnels you toward stuff that people who are like you are doing. Is that part of the discovery process here? Are people who consume Daily Harvest all already following each other, or is there something about TikTok that allowed them to connect very quickly when this happened?

Madison: It’s certainly the latter. The TikTok algorithm is scary good. So, for example, if you are someone who demonstrated any interest in the past in veganism, in clean living, in healthy food, in pretty aesthetics, TikToks in that vein will find you. Also, people use TikTok as a search engine. Young people these days, that’s where they go to find out what is going on, and I can’t totally blame them. Look, far be it from me to trust what a corporation is telling me. You wanna find out what’s going on with the people eating this food, you go to the place where you can hear from the people eating this food.

Alex: Well, yeah, I mean, that’s part of the fascinating part of this and, you know, Laura and I are geriatric millennials, so we are alienated and terrified of TikTok and the idea that people use it as a news source, but people turn to it for not just entertainment but for news and commentary, and what I find fascinating about this story is that you generally hear about that in a purely negative sense, in a sort of ominous way about how TikTok is the home of misinformation, the home of hoaxes, health misinformation, just all sorts of quack nonsense or whatever. But in this case, TikTok and then also Instagram and Reddit communities were your only actual source of reliable information about this for some time—which is a real turnaround from how these places are usually portrayed in the legacy media.

Madison: Absolutely. I think what’s important here is that those places often serve very well niche communities. So if you have an autoimmune condition, for example, that only a small amount of the population has, there aren’t a ton of experts in the medical field who cover it. A great place to find answers is gonna be Reddit, is gonna be TikTok, and they may not all be accurate, and they may not all work for you, but that’s your best bet. And that’s what we’re seeing here with Daily Harvest, because while this is a recall on a large scale, we’re talking about under a thousand people impacted, based on the numbers we have now, which in the scheme of things is a very small group.

Laura: So where does the story stand now? Obviously the Lentil + Leek Crumbles have been withdrawn, but what’s the state of affairs now—like what’s the company doing and what are these people who presumably are now recovering, what action do they take next?

Madison: So the company voluntarily recalled the product. It took about a month from the beginning of this kerfuffle to an answer. And the answer as it stands is that Daily Harvest have identified something called tara flour, which is from the South American tara tree, as the problem child of the ingredients list. Still more questions on that, but as of now, Consumer Reports is advising you don’t eat anything with that flour in it.

Laura: I feel like that should be easy to avoid. It’s not in everything.

Madison: Uh, yeah.

Alex: Yeah, obviously you wouldn’t have known, but when you’re ordering something called Lentil + Leek Crumbles, you don’t know there’s gonna be some weird root in it that will end up with you losing an organ. So I feel like it should be easy for me to avoid tara flour, but I also have no idea in which circumstances I might encounter it.

Madison: I don’t know, I’m still eating hot dogs out of the package. Something’s gonna kill me, it’s OK. Daily Harvest has said the rest of its foods are completely safe, but the internet all at once has the longest memory on earth, it never forgets, and at the same time it forgets everything almost immediately. So it will be very interesting to see how Daily Harvest’s reputation weathers this storm. They recently had a round of layoffs. I was reading a piece in Fortune that reported the company attributed it to the recession, to which I say, “Sure, Jan.” But it does seem like the next year is gonna be incredibly critical for this company, because it’s going to be very difficult for anyone who encountered this story to want to purchase any of the other safe foods from this company when there are plenty of other direct-to-consumer vegan-smoothie fish in the sea.

Alex: And we’re describing Daily Harvest as a huge success story, but when Chipotle has a huge recall, people might stop going to Chipotle for a while, but the company itself is not in danger. Daily Harvest, as you say, has all of these competitors that could take over their space pretty quickly, because the service they’re offering is one that seems pretty easy to emulate.

Madison: Exactly. I’m back at Chipotle, Qdoba never got my money, but if I decide to become one of those aspirational vegan healthy folks—and I really do hope to at some point in my time on this planet—I’m gonna look elsewhere.

Alex: Madison, thank you so much for talking to us today.

Madison: Thank you. Good luck to all of your gallbladders.

Alex: After the break, we’ll be back to talk about how the Lentil + Leek Crumbles fiasco fits into a larger pattern of food poisoning in the U.S.

Laura: In the first half of the show, we’ve been talking about the Daily Harvest recall. But food poisoning is a problem that goes far beyond a single product or a single known ingredient. In fact, food poisoning is very common in the United States. We’re talking now with Helen Bottemiller Evich, who wrote a long investigative feature for Politico in April about problems at the FDA, the regulatory body that oversees food safety. Helena, what are some of the most commonly contaminated foods, and what kind of illnesses do we see here in the U.S.?

Helena Bottemiller Evich: It’s a great question. I think food safety is one of those things we kind of take for granted and don’t think about a lot, but we do have quite a large burden of foodborne illness in the U.S. About 48 million people each year get sick; about 100,000 are hospitalized; and 3,000 die. That’s according to the CDC’s best estimate. And the big caveat you have to put with all of this is it’s very difficult to pin foodborne illnesses down to specific foods. That said, though, the foods that tend to have the most foodborne illness outbreaks are the ones that we’re told to eat more of, like leafy greens, lettuce, meats, poultries, dairy. Those can be contaminated with E. coli or salmonella. And we see those repeatedly have foodborne illness outbreaks, but those are also the foods that the government tells us to eat more of, so it’s a little bit of a tricky thing to communicate.

Laura: This is something I find really intriguing, because I grew up associating outbreaks of stuff like E. coli with eggs or fresh meat. And only recently do I remember really reading about an outbreak of E. coli in lettuce and thinking, “How does that happen?” Like what in lettuce or leafy vegetables, or even strawberries, could harbor these kinds of diseases? What’s going on there?

Helena: So oftentimes it’s adjacent to cattle production, or the water might be getting contaminated from nearby cattle or wildlife intrusion.

Laura: Just to clarify, the presence of the cattle in fields adjacent to leafy green crops—it’s their excrement that’s contaminating the water that’s being used to irrigate those crops?

Helena: Yeah.

Laura: To my knowledge, that doesn’t happen in, say, the EU.

Helena: One thing that’s really tricky about comparing food safety in the U.S. to other countries is all of the systems are pretty different, both in terms of how they regulate on farms or don’t and then also how they actually track foodborne illnesses and investigate them. Certainly U.S. growers love to say we’re the safest in the world, and some people just dispute that. So it’s a tough thing to compare, but the centralization or the really large-scale processing of fruits and vegetables, leafy greens in particular, makes it particularly difficult because if you have one contamination event, it’s just spread across many, many states.

Laura: That makes sense. If the United States government wanted to make that food supply safer, are there measures that they could put in place?

Helena: There’s a lot of focus on this both from the industry and from the government. It’s taken a really long time to get water standards in place. We mentioned how cattle could potentially contaminate leafy greens, and one way is water. So if irrigation channels are running open air and you have birds or dust or even just rain water, you can see how bacteria could spread that way. It’s taken FDA more than 10 years to put in safety standards for water and impose things that growers have to do. That said, there are private-sector things that they have tried to do to better get a handle on this. A lot of retailers have put pressure on leafy greens growers to, for example, have more distance between their growing operations and cattle. So there are things being done, but we really have not solved the problem—I think that’s the bottom line.

Alex: Why does it take 10 years to come up with water safety rules?

Helena: Great question. There’s a lot of reasons. There’s bureaucracy, there’s inertia. To be fair to FDA, it’s really complicated to think about how you regulate agricultural water. They did come up with an initial stab at this, and it was widely panned as being extremely complicated, like it required farmers to do logarithmic equations—I’m not joking. So everyone sort of agreed: This is not it. And that set this back years. We all probably remember the big peanut-butter salmonella outbreak, or the big spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006—well, those events did spark some bipartisan legislation, and FDA completed some of those things, but some of those regulations took a very long time. That law was signed by Obama in January 2011. And we’re still waiting on some of those regulations to be actually implemented.

Alex: Over the last few years, we’ve been thinking about the FDA mostly in terms of drug approval and vaccines and medicine. But what is the FDA’s food purview? How does it regulate food? I think part of the story of Daily Harvest is most people think if you’re selling something, the FDA has said it’s safe to consume. It’s not quite that simple though, is it?

Helena: This is one of those things where it’s just so clear if you talk to any consumer that there’s a really big gap between what consumers think FDA does and what FDA actually does. FDA has jurisdiction over about 80 percent of the food supply, which is a massive undertaking. That’s everything from imported seafood to midsize food manufacturers making pretzels to the fresh produce for our salad bowls. It’s hundreds of thousands of facilities, both in the U.S. and also abroad. And for the most part, FDA is not inspecting all that regularly; it’s not unusual for it to be every few years. We saw recently with infant formula, factories were supposed to be getting inspected every year, and during Covid they scaled back a lot of those inspections. But I think if you were to ask the average person, “How often is an infant formula plant inspected?” they’d probably say, “Oh, probably pretty often, I don’t know, that just seems like something the government would be on.” So I just think there’s this big gap between what we think they do and what they actually do.

Alex: Just to clarify, because we were talking about what the FDA does and doesn’t do, you say they’re responsible for 80 percent of the food supply—what’s the 20 percent of the food supply the FDA isn’t responsible for?

Helena: Mostly meat. But FDA also handles nutrition and food additives and things like that. And actually, what we think might be the problem with Daily Harvest, the tara flour, we think that was essentially a “generally recognized as safe” ingredient. Generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, as we call it in food world, is essentially food companies, industry experts, and outside experts and scientists considering something literally generally recognized as safe. They can notify the FDA, like, “Hey, we have determined X ingredient is GRAS”; they can send a letter, and FDA can say, “We don’t have any questions about this.” And that is about as much oversight as you’ll get in that space. But you can self-determine GRAS or determine with experts a GRAS status without notifying FDA.

Laura: So it’s really different from the drug approval process, where you’re submitting something and then it’s being actively reviewed and then it makes the list, and now this is OK.

Helena: Oh, completely. And also FDA has a process for food additives. but that process can be so cumbersome and takes so long that companies tend to just go through the GRAS process. It’s like a loophole you can drive a truck through, that’s how consumer advocates see it. Those in the industry will say the process isn’t as abused as you would think because food companies don’t want to make people sick— that’s against their interest. They can be sued, and we see plenty of litigation over things like this. So, it’s not that there are no checks on it, but it’s certainly one of those things that I think when you tell a consumer about that, they’re like, “Wait, that’s how it works?”

Laura: Right. Because I think a lot of people would think they are checking stuff is safe before it goes out. Whereas the way the system actually works is it’s quite easy to get a product to market, and then if it makes people sick, that’s when there might be an investigation, there might be some lawsuits. So you are sort of the guinea pig if you’re gonna try a new food.

Helena: It’s a really big philosophical difference that I think we have with Europe. Europe employs more of what’s called the precautionary principle, which is more like you can’t put it on the market unless you can really prove that something doesn’t have issues, doesn’t cause harm. And in the U.S., we’re much more, unless we have evidence of harm, it’s kind of the opposite.

Laura: In your piece, you mentioned that FDA officials have this kind of joke that the F in the FDA is a silent F. Is there a sense that the food branch is kind of neglected within the agency, that it gets less funding and less attention since there’s been so much emphasis on Covid vaccines? Is there a sense that the agency is kind of straining under doing all that work, and would that affect the food part of the organization?

Helena: It is such a backseat issue in the agency and has been for a long time, definitely before Covid, but I think Covid really exacerbated that dynamic. We’ve been in a global emergency, and all of that has gotten a lot of attention. But I think it has reminded some folks on the food side too of just how lopsided the focus is within FDA. And what we’re seeing now is a lot of industry, consumer, and advocacy groups, along with environmental groups—a really broad coalition—is coming together and basically saying we really need FDA to reboot and have better leadership.

Laura: It sounds like there are so many factors in play here in terms of securing a safe food supply. And it’s natural to go to the FDA and just say, “We need more regulation,” but in your view what is the biggest thing the U.S. could do to avoid these shortages and outbreaks and generally improve the safety of what we eat?

Helena: I think there’s a lot of debate about what should be done, and probably each commodity’s different in terms of what they need. I don’t think there is a silver bullet on any of this. When it comes to infant formula, I think there is going to be more focus on whether or not FDA’s oversight is stringent enough. I think that’s a fair place to look. I think Congress eventually will probably take another look at all of this, but honestly it will probably take some sort of catastrophic crisis. It’s usually what we see: We usually see some horrific event that spurs a fresh look. Our system is very reactive.

Alex: So we just have to wait for the next catastrophic event, and then we can finally take care of food regulation in this country?

Helena: I hesitate to think about what that would be. I mean, with this Daily Harvest thing, I think FDA recalled it in June, mid-June. It’s been months, and we still do not have an official answer from FDA—I know Daily Harvest has put out what they think it is—but I mean, hundreds of people sick; a hundredish hospitalized. If it takes FDA months to nail the same ingredient that Reddit did within days, I think that’s gonna be really embarrassing.

Alex: As it should be!

Laura: Thank you so much for taking us through all of this.

Helena: Anytime. Thank you.

Alex: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse.

Laura: Emily Cooke is our executive producer.

Alex: Myron Kaplan is our audio editor.

Laura: If you enjoy The Politics of Everything and you want to support the show, one thing you can do is share this episode with a friend.

Alex: Thanks for listening.