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The vomiting, diarrhea, and gallbladder surgeries were bad enough. Daily Harvest’s alleged food poisoning victims say the startup’s response made things worse

August 13, 2022, 12:15 PM UTC
Daily Harvest founder and CEO Rachel Drori.
Courtesy of Daily Harvest

Abby Silverman normally posts on social media about her job as a digital creative director for Cosmopolitan or her latest shopping haul, or shares “get ready with me” videos as she puts together an outfit for a date night in New York City or a vacation day in Paris.

But in mid-June, Silverman posted a piece of content that was off brand for her. In a two-minute TikTok video, she told her nearly 120,000 followers that about a month earlier she’d received a free package from frozen vegan food delivery service Daily Harvest that included a new product—French Lentil + Leek Crumbles. After eating the crumbles on May 11, she said she’d suffered stomach pain so severe that she went to the ER twice, the second time with a high fever, and registered extremely elevated liver levels—an indication that her liver was not working properly. 

Despite her ordeal, Silverman had been nervous about publicly criticizing the brand; her online persona is not controversial, she says. Daily Harvest had sent her the package hoping she’d promote the food to her followers. But instead, Silverman became a TikTok whistleblower of sorts: Her video went viral, with more than 1 million views and nearly 4,000 comments—including some thanking her for solving their own medical mysteries. Jenna Dargenzio, a content creator and jewelry designer, told Fortune she went to the ER twice in one day in May with intense stomach pain and didn’t suspect the crumbles until Silverman’s post. “It did not click until I watched Abby’s video,” she says. She then posted her own Instagram and TikTok video about the episode.

“This is the first time I’ve seen an outbreak figured out by social media,” says Bill Marler, a lawyer who says he’s representing some 350 people, including Silverman, who claim the crumbles made them sick. More than 25 of his clients allege that they’ve had their gallbladders removed as a result of eating the product, he says.

The crumbles, which resemble ground-up veggie burgers, are so far reported to have sickened nearly 500 people and sent 113 to the hospital, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Daily Harvest voluntarily recalled the crumbles in an email to customers on June 17, two months after a launch that touted their “BIG.PLANT.ENERGY.” But some consumers complain that the email was easy to miss and lacked urgency, and that Daily Harvest’s initial social media posts were slow to arrive and buried the warning. The company currently faces three active lawsuits related to the crumbles.

“The goal of a recall is to ensure that people stop consuming the item,” the company said in a statement to Fortune. “We used the most effective communication channels to notify customers directly and the recall was successful.” The company declined to comment further.

A typical food safety case would normally be confined to a few headlines and the far off corners of the internet. But just as TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter amplified Daily Harvest’s ethos of healthy and sustainable living, the platforms are now amplifying its food safety issue and customers’ criticisms of how the startup has handled the crumbles episode—turning the debacle into a case study of what happens when brands built on and for the influencer era face a crisis. 

Daily Harvest voluntarily recalled its French Lentil + Leek Crumbles on June 17.
Courtesy of Daily Harvest

Founded in 2015 by former Gilt Groupe marketing executive Rachel Drori, the company checked all the boxes of a startup born of Instagram: a direct-to-consumer brand replete with celebrity backers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Serena Williams, and Bobby Flay; an army of influencers spreading its gospel; and its own Instagram feed full of memes and stylized photos of overnight oats and chia bowls.

The crumbles fiasco struck Daily Harvest just as the company was riding a pandemic-fueled boom. As restaurants shut down and cooking at home got tedious, consumers looking for new and creative ways to stock their freezers flocked to the brand and its subscription boxes full of matcha lemongrass lattes ($5.99 for a two-pack), cherry açai smoothies ($8.49), and red cabbage and buckwheat donburi ($11.99). In the spring of 2020, even as it struggled with supply chain woes like dry ice shortages, Daily Harvest hit its sales goals for the entire year, said one former employee. In November 2021, it closed its Series D round of funding, which valued the company at $1.1 billion.

Last week, Daily Harvest announced layoffs. A source with knowledge of the situation said the cuts impacted 15% of its headcount. Daily Harvest told employees during an all-hands meeting that the layoffs were planned before the crumbles issue and were related to the inflationary pressures the company had outlined at a previous meeting in May, according to a source familiar with the matter. 

Crucial to the company’s growth to coveted unicorn status had been social media and the influencer economy. But now many of those same forces are lending a hand in its unraveling. “They’re getting battered through all these platforms where they gained all this love,” says Pallavi Kumar, a professor at American University’s School of Communication, whose specialties include crisis communications and social media. “Now they’re getting all of the hate.”   

Turning to Reddit

It took Daily Harvest a month after its June 17 email to publicly pinpoint tara flour, a plant-based protein in the crumbles, as the ingredient behind the outbreak. The company and the FDA still have yet to determine what specifically is at issue with the tara. Some food safety experts say Daily Harvest’s response time is reasonable for a case like this. But in the age of digital immediacy and instant online gratification, those impacted say the waiting period has been excruciating. They’ve struggled with the anxiety of not knowing the exact cause of their illness or the long-term repercussions that eating the crumbles might have on their health. 

That’s where Reddit has filled a vacuum. The online message board initially served as a forum for customers to detail what happened to them after they ate the French Lentil + Leek Crumbles: stomach pain, elevated liver levels, jaundice, dark urine, fatigue, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, back pain, shoulder pain. Some said they had never been so sick in their life. Others wondered if they had been felled by the latest coronavirus variant or had developed long COVID.       

As the weeks went on with few new company updates, theories and speculation abounded on the Daily Harvest subReddit, from what made people sick (poisonous mushrooms, dirty equipment, a mix-up with a tara-based product that’s used as a leather tanning agent) to questions about whether others were experiencing strange symptoms, like pain in the big toe joint. “They are so slow to share updates,” says Dargenzio of the company. “We have to dig and figure out all these things on our own because they’re not.”

Identifying tara flour

When Daily Harvest did name tara flour as the culprit, it landed there in part by process of elimination. Through testing, the company ruled out everything from food-borne pathogens like listeria, e.coli, and salmonella, to a range of mycotoxins caused by fungus or mold, to a high level of heavy metals. The French Lentil + Leek Crumbles were the first and only product in Daily Harvest’s range of 140 items to use tara flour, derived from the seeds of the tara tree native to South America, it said. “Our investigation team will continue working with the FDA, the tara flour producer and others to help determine what specifically made people sick,” the company wrote in its latest update on July 19.

The FDA’s response has basically been: Not so fast. In a statement about the Daily Harvest recall, the agency said it only names ingredients or suppliers when there is enough evidence linking that ingredient to illness. “Sharing preliminary information on the investigation may mislead consumers in believing that a specific ingredient was the cause of an illness or outbreak when in fact it was later ruled out of being linked to an adverse event,” it said in a statement.

But the evidence, or perhaps the lack thereof, has been enough for Consumer Reports to advise its readers not to eat any product that contains tara flour. The consumer watchdog noted that the ingredient is not commonly found in food products and is relatively new to the U.S. food supply, introduced as part of the current boom in plant-based proteins. “We don’t know if the issue is a contaminate or the flour itself because there doesn’t appear to be any safety data,” says Michael Hansen, a Consumer Reports senior staff scientist.

Daily Harvest’s food safety checks

Former employees told Fortune that Daily Harvest has a robust food safety process in place and requires that all its ingredients have the FDA designation “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. But not everyone believes that designation is air-tight. In fact, the law lets a company self-determine that an ingredient’s use is GRAS—so long as there’s sufficient safety data—without ever notifying the FDA of its conclusion. “There’s this loophole in our food safety system that has allowed companies to make their own determination about what’s safe,” explains Hansen. Tara flour does not show up in the FDA’s GRAS database, but a source close to the company told Fortune that Daily Harvest’s supplier had confirmed the flour’s use was GRAS, indicating that the supplier made a self-declaration.

Like many consumer product brands, Daily Harvest outsources its food production, and the company says all its suppliers undergo third-party inspections prior to providing ingredients to the company. 

Marler, who’s been called the most powerful food safety attorney in the country, had a working theory that the tara flour was to blame even before Daily Harvest publicly named it. He’d gotten a call from someone who drank a mango pineapple smoothie made by Revive Superfoods and experienced the same symptoms as clients in his crumbles cases. The crumbles and the smoothie had one ingredient in common—tara. Marler says he now has 30 clients who claim the Revive smoothie made them sick; the attorney has filed two lawsuits against Revive on behalf of clients who allege that drinking the smoothie landed them in the hospital.  

Revive has removed the smoothie from its website, but—unlike Daily Harvest—has not issued a recall. When reached by email, Revive CEO Yousuf Soliman declined to comment, other than to say, “We are reviewing internally but so far there is no link and results are negative.” The frozen smoothie subscription company is now the subject of its own Reddit thread, replete with posts that detail how the smoothie made people sick.

‘You live and die by social media’

One of consumers’ biggest criticisms of Daily Harvest is that, for a company purportedly adept at capitalizing on the Instagram era, it has fumbled the whole messy affair on social media. The company says it sent the June 17 email to anyone who had bought or received the crumbles. The email warned that some customers had reported “gastrointestinal issues” after eating the product, but several people Fortune spoke to say that language didn’t align with the seriousness of their symptoms. Daily Harvest also didn’t initially post a warning on its TikTok or Instagram accounts. “They’ve acquired a lot of their consumers through social media,” says Silverman, the TikTok whistleblower, “so why aren’t you putting the information where your customers are?” 

When Daily Harvest did post about the crumbles issue on Instagram, two days after its email and a day after Silverman’s TikTok post, it did so by updating previous posts about the crumbles. Users who noticed the change had to click two times and exit the platform to read the company’s “important message.” Followers demanded to know why the safety information wasn’t front and center. “Why not include the important message in the caption? Is your social media aesthetic more important than consumers’ health?” one poster commented. “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY NOT A PR STUNT,” wrote another. On Reddit, customers wondered why the company was able to text them about order renewals but not a serious health matter. “They lost credibility immediately by not being transparent or responsive from the beginning,” explains American University professor Kumar. The company says that it “used the most effective communication channels to notify customers directly.”

Daily Harvest subsequently deleted the crumbles posts, and until this week its only Instagram content has been no-nonsense, text-only updates about the recall signed by CEO Drori. On Sunday, the company made its first non-crumbles recall post since June 17: a photo of the Daily Harvest logo with a caption saying that over the next few days it would take users inside how it makes and sources its food. Some commenters derided the company for having moved on. “I see, we are just skipping past the whole ‘gallbladder removal saga,’” wrote one user. 

Carle Stenmark, a general partner at VMG Partners, one of Daily Harvest’s biggest investors, says that his private equity firm invests in a lot of food businesses and that recalls are not abnormal. The difference is that Daily Harvest is “a business built on social media,” says Stenmark, who also serves on the Daily Harvest board. “You live and die by social media.”

Not connecting the dots—until surgery

Several former Daily Harvest customers told Fortune they had grown to trust the brand to the point that they never suspected the crumbles were to blame. Nicole Kidston Thomson, a working mom in Brooklyn who had two kids under 2, first tried the brand when a neighbor gave her a gift card after her son was born in 2021. At one point, her freezer contained only Daily Harvest products and frozen breast milk. “I was a disciple of Daily Harvest,” she says. “I was trying to be a healthy mom.” 

Thomson says she ate the crumbles twice—once on May 15 and again on June 9—and at various points had symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, dark urine, extreme fatigue, and what she described as the worst heartburn of her life. She says she figured that she had eaten something that disagreed with her and chalked up lingering symptoms like acid reflux and fatigue to her postpartum hormones or the result of being a rundown working mom. 

The crumbles weren’t on Thomson’s radar when Daily Harvest’s June 17 email arrived, a week after she’d eaten the product a second time. The message instructed customers about the importance of cooking lentils thoroughly, before advising them to throw the crumbles away out of an “abundance of caution” and to expect a credit on their next order. “I was like, sweet, I’m getting a $10 credit,” says Thomson. “There was nothing in there that said this is an urgent health matter. It just seemed so casual.” The email marked the beginning of the company’s voluntary recall, but nowhere in the message or subject line did the company use the word recall. It wasn’t until a fellow playground mom posted on Instagram about her experience with the crumbles that Thomson made the connection.

Carol Ready, a professor who lives in Tulsa, was eating Daily Harvest products three to seven times a week to help her get through a busy semester. Ready ate the crumbles twice in May and both times wound up in the ER with what she described as the most intense pain she’d ever experienced. “I didn’t even suspect Daily Harvest,” she says. “It markets itself as really healthy. I trusted them.” It didn’t click for Ready until a friend sent her the Daily Harvest Reddit thread and tweets about someone having their gallbladder removed after eating the crumbles. She says she read the message just as she was going into pre-op to have her own gallbladder taken out. Up until that point, she’d still been eating the Daily Harvest food in her freezer. She says she had not seen the June 17 email from Daily Harvest, since she  signed up for the service with an email account she doesn’t regularly check.

Ready’s case had been the first that Marler filed against Daily Harvest (he is also representing Thomson). But Marler voluntarily dismissed the case last week after Daily Harvest filed to move the suit to arbitration. The company argued that when Ready signed up for its products, she agreed to its terms of service, including waiving her right to go to court and have a trial in front of a judge or jury. Marler has filed two other complaints on behalf of minors, both of whom personally never accepted the terms of service. The company faces a third suit from an influencer, represented by another lawyer, who was sent the crumbles by the company and therefore never agreed to its terms of service.  

Breaking their Daily Harvest habits

For Thomson and Ready, the recall came too late. By Daily Harvest’s first email, they’d both already consumed the crumbles. That wasn’t the case for Tasha Peterson. She received the crumbles on June 14, but they’d sat in her freezer until Aug. 2, when she ate the crumbles. Peterson says she went to the ER with excruciating pain that evening and then was in the hospital for three days while her doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with her.

Peterson says she only saw Daily Harvest’s emails about the crumbles after her ordeal. She doesn’t regularly check the account it was sent to, she says; plus, the message blended in with the regular promotional emails she gets from the company. Most upsetting to her is that the company didn’t text customers about the recall. “The assumption on my end then is you’re more worried about your image than my safety,” she says. Texting is how busy people communicate, she says, and Daily Harvest is designed for busy people like her (four kids, her own real estate brokerage firm, and another gig as a real estate investor). “I understand recalls happen,” she says, “but I do expect that they’d do a better job of letting me know there’s a problem.”

Like many of the people who got sick that Fortune spoke with, all three women say they now are grappling with anxiety about what they eat. They’ve also all dropped their Daily Harvest habit. Thomson’s doctor recommended that she stop breastfeeding her son because the issue with the crumbles is still unclear. She gets emotional thinking that she might have fed him a toxin. “I don’t even have the information to know how freaked out we should be,” she says. Ready has been seeing a nutritionist to help her manage her fear of food. She wants to wash everything herself and only eat things that are really cooked through. “I don’t want to go through that again,” she says. “I don’t have a gallbladder to give anymore.”

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