It’s been a month since trendy lentils began sending people to the hospital.
On June 17, the plant-based meal delivery service Daily Harvest responded to a barrage of complaints about its "French Lentil + Leek Crumbles," noting that “a small number of customers have reported gastrointestinal discomfort.” About a week later, the company issued another statement, noting that the “small number of customers” was actually 470 reports of illness and “gastrointestinal discomfort” was people needing their gallbladders removed due to liver failure.
Affected customers who spoke to Motherboard said they're still waiting for answers from the company and the FDA, and various customers have sued the company in the meantime. The situation has been awful for the people who've gotten sick, and the fallout has already been a public relations fiasco for the company, which was recently valued at more than $1 billion. Some of the people getting sick are high-profile social media influencers who were gifted food to promote and were thus able to discuss getting sick with their large audiences.
So far, Daily Harvest has been sued in New York and Oregon by three different plaintiffs. Customers allege in those complaints that after consuming French Lentil + Leek Crumbles, they “became violently ill with gastrointestinal illness and were hospitalized” and “suffered gastrointestinal injury that required surgery to remove their gallbladder.” Lawyer Bill Marler is representing 230 people in a class-action lawsuit.
Casey Lombardi, a 34-year-old industrial engineer, told Motherboard she was hospitalized after eating the lentils, but was only able to begin getting answers on the potential cause due to social media posts and a subreddit of affected customers called r/DailyHarvestRecall. There, hundreds of people have been posting about their ER visits and experiences after eating the Daily Harvest lentils. Joining this subreddit helped her understand why she had to go to the ER once and urgent care twice in the past week.
Lombardi signed up for Daily Harvest earlier this year because she was looking to save time while still being healthy. In late June, Lombardi woke up shivering uncontrollably with body aches. She of course didn't think that lentils could have been the cause. By the afternoon, she had a fever of 102 degrees and was nauseous. COVID tests came back negative. An urgent care doctor told her it was probably a viral infection and sent her home.
That night, Lombardi's fever rose to 104 degrees. At this point, she realized that she should go to the ER, where she got more tests done, including a tick panel that came back negative. The doctors again, unable to get a clear answer, said that it was probably an unknown viral infection. Lombardi sent Motherboard proof that she was a Daily Harvest customer and proof of her emergency room visit.
“Once my fever went down, they sent me home. In the next few days, I was taking Tylenol and Advil on and off, trying to stay hydrated,” she said. “And then I started developing a pain in my upper abdomen so I went back to urgent care.”
At this point, it had been five days. No doctor knew what was wrong.
Lombardi eventually stumbled on an Instagram post and all of the pieces began to come together. In this post, influencer Food Science Babe warned her followers that Daily Harvest’s French Lentil + Leek Crumbles had made at least 470 people sick.
Lombardi immediately remembered that both she and her wife had the crumbles on Tuesday, which was the night before they woke up sick.
“[My wife] had a fever of about 100. Same kind of abdominal pains [as me], but very, very, very slight. So we thought about it, and I was like, well, I ate most of it. My wife had some and my daughter had none,” Lombardi told Motherboard. “I'm just glad it was me. I don't know what I would have done if my daughter or my wife was as sick as I was.”
She eventually found the r/DailyHarvestRecall subreddit, and found people posting about even worse reactions. Some people had to have their gallbladders removed to manage the pain, they wrote. Seeing this, Lombardi made an appointment to get her liver enzymes tested; they were far above normal levels, according to test results shared with Motherboard.
“I found out about this recall through a third party Instagrammer. So that was annoying,” Lombardi said. “And then sure enough, I dug through my emails and the day I got sick, the 22nd, was when they sent out the official recall. And I was like, wow, if they sent that out maybe a day earlier, who knows? Might’ve not cooked it.”
She feels that the company should have emailed or contacted her sooner.
“They consistently text my phone regarding when our orders are coming, when to update our order, you know, make sure you update your order before 6 pm on Sundays, when it’s currently being delivered, when it was dropped off,” Lombardi said. “They have our numbers, they know what we ordered. A text message as soon as possible would have been good. Not, you know, something that could have ended up in the spam folder.”
Customers were appalled by Daily Harvest’s official response, which did not address the severity of the illnesses that they were reporting to the company. The initial Instagram post that the company shared, before deleting it due to customer backlash, read more like an ad than an apology: “UPDATE 6/19: An important message regarding our French Lentil + Leek Crumbles. Link in bio with details. […] Spaghetti and Walnut + Thyme Crumbles? We think Nonna would approve.”
While customers were undergoing surgery and medical tests at the hospital, Daily Harvest took the opportunity to market a different flavor of its crumbles. The company’s update provides one solution to affected customers: “For the trouble, we have placed a $10 credit in your account for every bag of French Lentil + Leek Crumbles in your last box.”
A spokesperson from Daily Harvest told Motherboard in a statement, “As soon as we identified a possible link between the French Lentil + Leek Crumbles and an adverse reaction, we immediately took action and launched a voluntary recall. We have reached out multiple times directly to consumers who received the product, instructing them to dispose of it and not eat it. In parallel, we launched an investigation to identify the root cause, working closely with the FDA, multiple independent labs, and a group of experts that includes microbiologists, toxin and pathogen experts as well as allergists. All pathogen and toxicology results have come back negative so far, but we’re continuing to do extensive testing so we can get to the bottom of this. Everyone who has been affected deserves an answer, and we are committed to making this right."
Daily Harvest's disaster was compounded by the fact that some of the people who got sick were influencers who they gifted the lentils to.
“I am freaking out. Something was brought to my attention last night related to my health issues and what might have caused it. So, a little over a month ago, Daily Harvest sent me a PR package of their new lentil crumbles and I have eaten these lentil leek crumbles only twice,” Luke Pearson, a lifestyle and wellness influencer, said in a video PSA to his more than 80,000 followers. “I had extreme stomach and gastro issues immediately after eating them. The next time was a week […] worsening symptoms and everything went downhill shortly after eating them.”
Creative director Abby Silverman also posted a PSA on TikTok, which has been viewed more than a million times. “Before I went to the hospital the first time, I had taken a photo of the food packaging because that was the only thing that I had done different in my routine. [...] I just Googled the product to see if anybody else was talking about this. People have the same exact symptoms as what I was having—elevated liver levels with no explanation,” she said. “I was thinking just now maybe I got a little bit early because I got a PR package, so maybe it was before [more] people started having these symptoms.”
Jenna Dargenzio, a 32-year-old content creator and jewelry maker from Los Angeles, was also gifted the French Lentil + Leek Crumbles as part of a PR package in May, over a month before Daily Harvest announced its recall. After eating the meal for dinner the same night, Dargenzio found herself in the ER early the next morning, she said. Motherboard viewed images of her in the ER.
After spending a day at the hospital, the doctors couldn't figure out the problem, but sent her home.
“I was crying, sweating, hurled over, just like, this cannot be normal. They did not check me. So I rushed back to the ER. They're like, 'Oh, you were here today?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, like you sent me home too soon,'” she said.
Dargenzio said she felt that what she experienced was unlike any food poisoning she'd had before
“I want to get involved with what happened because it was so not normal. In my mind I'm like, do I have cancer? Do I have this horrible disease?” Dargenzio said. “I never suspected it was [the crumbles] because I'm comparing it to other times I've had [food poisoning] and so I never suspected that it was food. I never suspected that it was the crumbles not once until I saw the TikTok.”
Over the next two weeks, she went to the ER twice, received an endoscopy, ultrasounds and CT scans—and still found no answers or cure to her pain, she told Motherboard. Like Lombardi, she found out about the issues online, through a TikTok—the one posted by Silverman.
“I think that at the end of the day, how they handled it has been like the biggest part of the problem,” Dargenzio told Motherboard. “When I first saw Abby's [TikTok] video, I thought it was like maybe a handful of us. After more time you realize, no, this is like hundreds, maybe thousands of people. The way they handled the situation was not ideal and it just makes you feel not trustworthy of them as a company.”
As people online began to form a community over their harrowing experiences, many customers insisted that it is not just the French Lentil + Leek Crumbles that are causing health problems, as Daily Harvest says. Katherine Cox, a 28-year-old student and nanny said in the past few weeks, all she had eaten from Daily Harvest were the flatbreads, yet, she experienced pretty similar symptoms as Lombardi, Dargenzio, and other customers who ate the lentils.
Cox woke up in the middle of the night from extreme abdominal pain and by the next day, had a fever of 102 degrees. She decided to go to the ER, because her symptoms matched that of gallstones. But like Dargenzio and Lombardi, the doctors weren’t able to give her a specific diagnosis. It was only a few days later, after having been to the ER and a specialist, that she found out about Daily Harvest’s recall through Reddit.
“I've given like thousands of dollars to this company and they're blatantly lying and saying that these other foods haven't caused people issues. Even though I've reported to the company, and other people reported to the company getting sick from the smoothies and flatbreads,” Cox said to Motherboard.
In emails to Daily Harvest’s dedicated email address for the lentil recall, email@example.com, Cox wrote: “For around a month now I’ve been experiencing terrible abdominal pain after eating your flatbreads. I have also eaten maybe two total servings of the recalled lentils, but that was long before the flatbreads sent me to the ER. Please, recall these flatbreads before more people get sick.”
Daily Harvest maintained in a statement that “we remain confident that this issue is isolated to French Lentil + Leek Crumbles and does not impact any of our other 140+ items.”
“I'm not going to trust them anymore with anything that I'm putting in my body," Cox said. "And I don't think other people should either.”
Cox says this is more than just about the physical illness she experienced.
“It's kind of emotionally weird to be poisoned by a company that you paid thousands of dollars to,” Cox said. “I saw one person say, it really sucks that this happens to my wife because she has healthy anxiety as it is, and [I’m] wondering who's subscribed to Daily Harvest that doesn't have health anxiety? You don’t get stuff made out of cauliflower and weird superfoods if you don't care about your health already.”
Customers on Reddit are now suspicious of sharing information with the company, concerned that whatever is collected could be used to defend in lawsuits. For example, Daily Harvest sent out a survey, seen by Motherboard, asking customers who ordered the lentils to explain their reactions to eating them and to give information about the temperature they cooked the lentils at. In addition, they have told customers in an email: “If you have any French Lentil + Leek Crumbles left, please dispose of them and do not eat them.” When asking Cox if she had thrown out her lentils, to which she referred to as “evidence,” she said, “Hell no.”
Now, a month later, Cox is still recovering from her illness. Her long term symptoms included bad abdominal pain, itchy skin, dark urine, and extreme fatigue. Lombardi, too, is still recovering from her illness.
Lombardi said, “I was extremely fatigued the past couple of weeks. I would try to work a little bit, and I would answer an email, and it would just wipe me out. Or I try to do dishes for 15 minutes, and then I'd have to sleep for an hour and a half. Even walking was difficult.”
Lombardi, Cox, and Dargenzio say they will never use Daily Harvest again. Cox and Lombardi were unable to cancel their meal plan for the week following their initial illnesses, and now have unopened Daily Harvest packages sitting in their houses. At this point, the bare minimum they want is their hospital bills covered and getting back the money they lost from missing weeks of work.
Dargenzio said, “My medical bills are thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. I haven't even gotten everything yet, but I feel like it's gonna be like, $20,000. I don't feel like that should be my responsibility.”
The women are frustrated that they still have no clear answers.
“We're still in the dark. Did we get a toxin that will affect us for the rest of our lives, even though we're not physically ill anymore?” Dargenzio asked. “Is it something that, once in your system, you have to be careful of? Could it cause something long term? We just don't know.”
The FDA declined to comment on this story, instead sending a general statement to Motherboard that said: “The FDA takes seriously reports of possible adulteration of a food that may also cause illnesses or injury. [...] It is also important to note that when specific consumer guidance can be developed (such as avoiding a specific contaminated food), the FDA and CDC will publish outbreak advisories communicating that guidance.” The only advisory that appears on the FDA’s website is a company announcement, copy and pasted from Daily Harvest’s website.