Daily Harvest sued over illness linked to lentils; cause remains a medical mystery

Problems continue to mount for Daily Harvest, a popular vegan food company that ships directly to customers.

On Monday, an Oklahoma woman, Carol Ann Ready, sued the company, alleging she was hospitalized after eating its “French Lentil + Leek Crumbles” and had to get her gallbladder removed.

At least 470 people have reported illnesses after consuming the crumbles, according to Daily Harvest. Ready’s attorney, Bill Marler, said he is now representing nearly 100 people with potential claims against the company.

“All of these people are relatively young, healthy people and all of them are having essentially the same symptoms and the same liver dysfunction and the same pain,” Marler said.

But the precise cause of the ailment remains a medical mystery.

“The symptoms for this are just not typical of what we would see with your traditional type of hazards in food,” said Martin Bucknavage, a senior food safety extension associate at Penn State University. “It’s different, and it’s not something I’ve ever seen.”

On Monday, Rachel Drori, Daily Harvest’s CEO and founder, said in a statement that the company has been working with the Food and Drug Administration and other experts to investigate the issue, but that tests for common food-borne pathogens, toxins and allergens “have all come back negative.”

“Despite consulting with numerous experts, cooperating with FDA’s investigation, working with our supply chain, and conducting extensive testing, we have not yet identified a cause,” she said. “I recognize this is so frustrating. I am incredibly frustrated.”

Drori added in her statement that tests have come back negative for “Listeria, E.Coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus Aureus (Staph), B.Cereus, and Clostridium Species.”

In the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court for the Southern District of New York, Ready says she first ate the crumbles on May 7, then suffered severe abdominal and gastrointestinal distress as well as pain in her right shoulder. She went to the hospital, according to the suit, where doctors ordered several tests and scans, then discharged her.

Ready says in the lawsuit that she then ate the lentil meal again on May 28, experienced more abdominal and shoulder pain, and went back to the hospital. She was admitted with elevated liver enzymes, according to the filing, and was diagnosed with liver and gallbladder dysfunction.

Ready alleges that her doctors told her the condition could cause “pain indefinitely” and recommended removing her “damaged gallbladder,” which they did on Friday.

Vegan influencer Luke Wesley Pearson shared a similar story on social media last week, saying he had to get his gallbladder removed after eating the lentil product twice.

“My life is forever changed by this,” he said, adding, “Daily Harvest needs to be held accountable.”

Pearson posted that he has hired legal council, and referred NBC News to his lawyer in response to an interview request.

Dr. Jasmohan Bajaj, a liver specialist and professor of medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he, too, is unsure what could be causing the symptoms.

“I am stupefied like anyone else. People are trying to be healthy and eat lentils, which are technically good for the liver,” he said. “It’s shocking that this is happening.”

Online, some experts and consumers have wondered whether the illness could be due to aflatoxins, a type of toxin produced by fungus that can grow on grains and seeds.

The company said on Monday that it is testing for a “wide range of toxins known as mycotoxins, including aflatoxins.”

“The first round of testing on the most common have come back negative but we continue to cast a wider net to ensure we are not missing anything,” the statement said.

Bajaj said exposure to an aflatoxin “could produce some of these symptoms,” but it’s just one of many possibilities.

Daily Harvest first issued a statement advising customers about reports of illnesses on June 19. The company posted a voluntary recall announcement via the FDA on June 23.

About 28,000 units of the product were distributed to consumers in the U.S., according to the recall notice. 

Anita, a Daily Harvest customer in Plano, Texas, who asked that her last name not be published for medical privacy reasons, said she endured a “whirlwind” after eating the lentil crumbles last week. Her stomach began to hurt the next day and got worse while at the park with her son.

“The stomach pain was pretty severe and I was there, just at the park,” she said. “I was standing outside and then I started feeling really, really faint like I was about to pass out.”

Anita said she’s been a Daily Harvest customer since 2019 because of their vegan options. The company was founded in 2015 and its business model is comparable to services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. It is known for its celebrity investors, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams, and influencer sponsors.

Anita said she developed a headache and nausea and noticed that her urine was dark-colored. She went to her doctor, who told her that she should go to the emergency room for testing, Anita said.

At the hospital, doctors informed her that her “liver enzymes were really high” and performed a CT scan, Anita said. She is waiting to learn more at follow-up appointments and is worried about what comes next.

“It was pretty crazy, and the thing that’s also scary now is the medical bills,” she said.

In her Monday statement, Drori said that “as the investigation has not yet identified a root cause, we are expanding our testing regimen to explore other potential, albeit less common, sources of contamination as well as protein and amino acid profiling.”

In response to an inquiry about the lawsuit, the company said it does not comment on pending or potential litigation. Daily Harvest emphasized, however, that it initiated a recall as soon as it received reports of customer illnesses, is working with the FDA to investigate, and reached out multiple times to customers who bought the lentil product.

“Everyone who has been affected deserves an answer, and we are committed to making this right,” the company said.

Marler said about 30 of the people he is representing are sending samples of their lentil crumbles to an FDA-approved lab for testing. 

“These illnesses are frightening and scary for people. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some clarity because people want to know what their long term prognosis is,” he said.