When popular frozen food delivery service Daily Harvest said this week it had identified the ingredient that had been bothering hundreds of customers, the response from many was simply: “What is taramel?”
Although not yet a household name, tara flour has grown in popularity as a plant-based source of protein in vegetarian or vegan foods, food safety experts said.
It is used as an alternative to wheat flour and can be found in a variety of products such as shakes, muffins and cookies, said Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food science at Oklahoma State University.
The product has found a market in vegan or vegetarian foods because it can be more challenging to get enough protein, said Benjamin Chapman, professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.
Tara flour is made from the seeds of tara trees, which are native to South America, particularly Peru, Jaroni said.
Daily Harvest said on Tuesday it had identified tara flour as the ingredient in its French Lentil & Leek Crumbles product that had sickened hundreds of people, with some reporting liver dysfunction and having to have their gall bladders removed.
As of July 14, there were 96 hospitalizations and 277 reports of illness around the country linked to Daily Harvest’s French lentil and leek crumbles, the Food and Drug Administration said, citing complaint reports. The FDA has investigated complaints of “gastrointestinal disorders and abnormal liver function” related to the frozen product.
Daily Harvest has not yet specified what caused the tara flour to sicken people.
Chapman said the possibilities could include contamination issues or a problem during the manufacturing or extraction process.
Daily Harvest said Tuesday that it no longer comes from the manufacturer of the tara flour and that the manufacturer does not supply ingredients for the rest of its products.
“This was the first and only time we have used tara flour, which has been available and used in the North American market as a plant-based source of protein prior to our use,” Daily Harvest said. “Our investigation team will continue to work with the FDA, the tara flour manufacturer and others to help determine what specifically made people sick.”
The company initiated a voluntary recall of the product last month after customers began complaining of getting sick. Some reported elevated liver enzymes and hospitalizations.
The company is also facing several lawsuits from people who say they got sick after consuming the product. Two of the cases were brought against the company and the product’s manufacturer on behalf of two children, including a 4-month-old who was breastfed.
The FDA has not identified tara flour as the source of the problem. The agency said in a statement to NBC News on Wednesday that it generally names ingredients or ingredient suppliers “only when there is enough evidence linking that ingredient to illness or injury.”
The agency said it is currently collecting data and conducting sample analysis on several ingredients.
“This includes extensive testing for numerous potential adulterants, including microbial and chemical contaminants,” the FDA said. “Sample analysis takes time, and there are no guarantees that the information available to the agency will show a definitive link between illnesses and food.”
The FDA said that the investigation of a particular ingredient “does not mean that the ingredient or the company that supplied the ingredient is definitively linked to adverse events — the results of an investigation of an ingredient may well lead to that ingredient being excluded as a cause of illness or injury.”
“Sharing preliminary information about the study could mislead consumers” into believing “a specific ingredient was the cause of an illness or outbreak, when in fact it was later ruled out to be associated with an adverse event,” the FDA said.