In August, Silicon Valley's favorite food replacement company upgraded to 2.0: Soylent that was shipped to drink, in slick-looking bottles. It promised a distinct upgrade to the $100 million company's trademark product: No more hovering over the counter, stirring the powdery nutrient mixture. Just pop the cap and drink down an entire meal.
But late in September, after a few weeks of shipments, users began complaining of a mysterious delay. Discussion sprouted on Reddit's r/Soylent, and on the company's own in-house forum. Today, the company revealed the cause in a blog post: A small number of Soylent 2.0 bottles had been found to contain mold. Shipments had been halted while the company conducted an investigation.
I was first alerted to the delays when I began receiving emails from Soylent users who felt that the company wasn't being forthcoming about why the shipments were being held up. One, from Hayden Barnes, a "busy lawyer with a family," compiled a number of the complaints and explained his own story:
"I bought a trial case of 12 bottles of Soylent 2.0, loved it, and subscribed to a monthly delivery. Then my subscription order just never shipped. 48 hours passed then a week, now longer." Other people were complaining, too, on both forums. The company then posted a brief statement noting that shipments were being delayed, and removed the "Ships within 48 hours" from their homepage, but no explanation was given.
Today, Soylent gave the explanation in a blog post: "Earlier this week, we announced an issue in fulfillment that resulted in delayed shipments of Soylent 2.0. Out of the more than 400,000 bottles shipped thus far, we have been made aware of 11 isolated incidents of mold growth on the external part of the bottle, which is well within the industry standard rate of one in 10,000 defects in low acid aseptic packaging," it read. "Using the utmost caution, we immediately halted shipments until we could conduct a thorough investigation of the reports."
I have at this point received multiple complaints from Soylent users who contest that the mold is not found on the external part of the bottle, and that they were kept in the dark about the cause of the delay.
Soylent declined to comment on the record beyond the explanation laid out in the blog post, but confirmed the account laid out there: That the delay was the result of an "exhaustive review of manufacturing records and comprehensive product inspections at our distribution center." It found one potential problem: Some "guardrail settings were not optimized causing some bottles to move erratically on the conveyor, which resulted in small splashes on the external surface of the bottle, thereby allowing mold from the environment to grow on the bottle." The company will resume shipping today, as Soylent says the problem has been addressed.
Even after the blog post was published, I continued to receive aggrieved emails from customers contesting the location of the mold, and complaining of opaqueness. One user says he was banned from the r/Soylent forum for posting pictures of the mold.
"The only reason I brought [the delays] to your attention is because I don't think they are being as forthcoming as possible," Barnes told me. "They are undeniably in a uniquely challenging circumstance because this isn't just a product, this is a product people rely on for their food, many for all of their food, so fulfillment problems are particularly problematic."
Indeed: Soylent is pitching its product as a full meal replacement, so it is held to greater scrutiny—and can cause greater anguish—when there are unexplained delays in shipments or contamination issues. People on all-Soylent diets rely on receiving their shipments regularly, or at least knowing why they're not getting them. I recall the small amount of stress I experienced during my own Soylent trial when one of the early, beta-version packets I mixed up had mold, too.
Still, for many of the affected customers, there's no ill will toward the company—they're just asking for more transparency. In fact, Barnes says he thinks Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart is "a bit of a genius," and remains optimistic about the product.
"I just want to see them succeed," he said.