Tara flour is a food additive named by Daily Harvest as the culprit behind a recent outbreak of illness affecting hundreds of its customers
Until more information is made available to the public, Consumer Reports’ food safety and policy experts recommend that consumers stop eating products that contain an additive called tara flour. This advice comes after a popular plant-based meal delivery service, Daily Harvest, named tara flour as the culprit behind a recent outbreak of illness related to its French Lentil and Leek Crumbles frozen product. The recalled product is known to have sickened almost 500 people so far.
Neither Daily Harvest nor the Food and Drug Administration has provided additional details about what specifically in the tara flour used in the French Lentil and Leek Crumbles made people ill. In some cases, consumers were reportedly so sick with fever, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, and high liver enzyme levels that they had to seek emergency care. At least 25 people are known to have had their gallbladder removed.
“Because the reported symptoms have been so severe and so little is known, we’re advising people to avoid tara flour until we understand what is causing the illnesses, and until consumers can be assured that any products containing tara flour in the wider market are safe,” says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety and testing at Consumer Reports.
A spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration confirmed that the agency is working with Daily Harvest in an ongoing investigation involving “extensive testing for numerous possible adulterants, including microbial and chemical contaminants.” They also noted that this process “takes time, and there are no guarantees the information available to the agency will demonstrate a definitive link between illnesses and foods.”
The company said earlier this week that tara flour was used only in its French Lentil and Leek Crumbles product—not in any of its other 140 or so food items. “Our investigation team will continue working with the FDA, the tara flour producer, and others to help determine what specifically made people sick,” says a Daily Harvest spokesperson.
Last month, Daily Harvest, along with the FDA, announced a voluntary nationwide recall of 28,000 units of French Lentil and Leek Crumbles after multiple reports surfaced of people becoming ill after eating it. The product was distributed to consumers via online sales and home delivery and in retail locations in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Daily Harvest ships its frozen, organic, premade food items to select ZIP codes around the U.S. The French Lentil and Leek Crumbles was first made available this past April as a food to sauté and add to other dishes or products, the company said.
What Is Tara Flour, Anyway?
Tara flour is derived from seeds of the tara tree, common to South America. The seeds are harvested by hand, according to U.S.-based company Westec, which sells tara products and has a page on its website exclusively promoting them. (A Westec company spokesperson said they only sell tara protein, a different ingredient, and are not a supplier to Daily Harvest.)
A Daily Harvest customer service representative said that tara flour has been used in North America for over a year as a plant-based source of protein.
“Tara flour doesn’t appear to be commonly found in food products,” says Amy Keating, CR’s food test program leader. She says that tara gum, a different ingredient made from the same plant, is more commonly used as a thickener or stabilizer in foods like ice cream.
Does the FDA Regulate Tara Flour?
Tara flour is considered a food additive—a substance added to food to flavor or preserve it, or to add nutritional properties, says CR’s Keating.
The FDA does have a formal approval process to review food additives. In addition, there’s a pathway known as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), which is essentially a voluntary industry repository of food additives considered to be safe, and the reason they are considered safe, when used as intended.
Outside experts that CR consulted were unable to locate tara flour listed as a food additive at the FDA. “I can find no evidence that FDA ever reviewed tara flour for safety,” says Tom Neltner, senior director for safer chemicals at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. For consumers to have confidence that the food supply is safe, says Neltner, they need to know the FDA is watching over it.
What’s more, not a lot is known about the additive. “This substance hasn’t been in the U.S. food supply for long,” says Michael Hansen, CR’s senior scientist for food policy. “There are gaps in the system that allow new additives to enter the market without going through any process. Unfortunately, that’s what may have happened here.”
We asked the FDA whether tara flour is an approved ingredient for use in food, or whether it’s listed as a GRAS ingredient, and whether it has undergone any FDA safety testing. After multiple requests, the FDA would not directly answer those questions.
Rather, a spokesperson said that the regulatory status of a food has no bearing if a contamination happens because a food maker fails to follow good manufacturing practices, as they are required to.
Daily Harvest did not respond to CR’s question about what safety testing the company did of tara flour before including it in its French Lentil and Leek Crumbles.
What to Do Right Now
Consumers should review the ingredient panels of packaged foods to check for the presence of tara flour, says Keating. If you visit a restaurant or deli or use a meal delivery service, ask whether any of its products contain tara flour.
If you feel symptoms arise shortly after consuming a food product containing tara flour or protein, contact your physician, or if your condition worsens or is severe, seek medical attention.
If you experience an illness you think could be related to something you ate, it’s always a good idea to report it to your state health department or to the federal government through its form on foodsafety.gov, Rogers says.
You can also speak directly to your state’s FDA consumer complaint coordinator by calling the phone number listed for your state.