In early May, Abby Silverman went to the emergency room in the middle of the night with “excruciating abdominal pain.” The doctors ran tests and found that she had inexplicably elevated liver-enzyme levels and bacteria in her urine. They couldn’t pinpoint an exact explanation for Silverman’s symptoms, but sent her home with a five-day antibiotic course, thinking it was a UTI. After she finished it, her pain returned — “exponentially worse,” she says — this time accompanied by a 101.8 degree fever. She ended up back in the ER. “I had a CT scan, an ultrasound, a vaginal ultrasound, a ton of blood work,” she remembers. None of it supplied any clear answers as to what jettisoned her liver into sudden distress. And then, last week, over a month after the pain started, she got an email: “Important information about your French Lentil + Leek crumbles.”
“The wheels in my brain definitely started to turn,” says Silverman, a creative director who had gotten the lentils — a new protein option from Daily Harvest — in a PR package, and eaten them the night before her medical ordeal began. The email said that “a small number of customers have reported gastrointestinal discomfort” after eating the French Lentil + Leek Crumbles and it was recalling the product. The email also went on to outline the proper temperature for cooking lentils, which is apparently 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and cautioned against eating them raw.
“Initially, my mind did go to that, maybe it’s something in here’s not agreeing with my body,” she says. But she didn’t try the lentils again after the first ER visit, so when her symptoms resurfaced she got nervous: “My mind just moved to more serious things,” she explained. “I didn’t know why this was still happening.”
Immediately, Silverman consulted Google and found a Reddit forum started by a user who said they’d eaten the Daily Harvest crumbles and ended up in the hospital. There are over 1,000 comments, some from people echoing similar experiences: The most common complaint involved extreme cramping that baffled ER doctors. And it didn’t end there: Others wrote about fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and sharp stomach pain, which may all point to food poisoning, as well as full-body itching, dark urine, and eviscerating fatigue, which can be signs of liver failure. Many cataloged a battery of tests — scans, endoscopies, ultrasounds, bloodwork — with liver-enzyme levels leaping off the charts.
Launched in 2015, Daily Harvest is a plant-based, vegan meal-delivery service. Its offerings include smoothie bases and grain bowls and mylk, delivered mostly frozen and direct to consumers. Its investors include GOOP boss Gwyneth Paltrow and tennis great Serena Williams, and its marketing relies heavily on influencers, many of whom — like Silverman — received early access to the crumbles at the beginning of May. Some of those influencers have now gone public with harrowing reviews.
Daily Harvest’s customers complain that the company has been slow to act. One Cut staffer who ordered the crumbles received a first email alerting her to the possibility of “gastrointestinal issues” associated with the product on June 18, and advising her to “dispose” of whatever she might have on hand; two more emails followed on June 20 and 22, the latter of which outlined a “voluntary recall.”
“We launched an investigation to identify the root cause of the health issues being reported,” the email reads. “We’re working closely with the FDA and with multiple independent labs to investigate this. We are working with a group of experts to help us get to the bottom of this — that includes microbiologists, toxin and pathogen experts as well as allergists.” According to the company, “All pathogen and toxicology results have come back negative so far, but we’re continuing to do extensive testing.” In the meantime, Daily Harvest is encouraging customers to report adverse crumble reactions (via a Google-form questionnaire or by email) and not to eat the product. As of June 22, the FDA would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, but by June 23, a discreet “update” on the lentil situation had been linked at the top of the Daily Harvest website. The company posted the contents of its recall email to Instagram and Twitter the day before. It has not responded to the Cut’s detailed request for comment.
A full picture of the problem is still filling in, though it seems that the corporate strategy has left even the influencers, who supply much of Daily Harvest’s advertising, without answers. Jenna Dee Dargenzio, a jewelry designer and content creator, says she found out about the lentil emergency from a TikTok Silverman made recapping her medical saga and cautioning people against the crumbles. Once she saw that, “I was like, ‘Oh my God. Wait. All this happened to me.’” Dargenzio says she also received the lentils in a press package in early May, and ate them for dinner on May 11 — a date she can confirm, because she documented her meal prep for social media. Those posts never went up. Within hours, Dargenzio says, “I was in so much pain that I was throwing up.” She went to the emergency room around 5 a.m., where “they tested for everything: CT scan, ultrasound, blood work, all the things,” Dargenzio recalls. “And they were just dumbfounded and confused.” She says the doctors suggested a stomach bug and then concluded she probably had a UTI, based on the color of her urine and the bacteria they found in the sample. They sent her home, but she returned within hours: “The pain was just so bad that I was sweating and hurled over. It was just so indescribable. I had never experienced anything like it.” She got an endoscopy: “My whole gut, from my esophagus to my intestines,” she says, “everything was super-inflamed.”
Still the doctors couldn’t figure it out. She spent the next week on bedrest, but during that time, her husband starting eating the lentils; soon enough, he’d developed a fever, horrible cramps, discolored urine, and “insane itching,” Dargenzio says. “That’s when we realized, okay, maybe it’s liver related. He went to the urgent care and his enzymes were through the roof.” She posted about the incident on May 14, and made a follow-up after seeing Silverman’s video on June 19. She says the only communication she’s received from Daily Harvest are the same generic emails that went out to all their customers who’d ordered the crumbles. In the intervening five weeks, she reports racking up an estimated $20,000 in hospital and doctors’ bills, for appointments occurring as recently as June 16.
“It’s really stressful to be having such severe health issues and then to just be so left in the dark,” she says. “I’m going to the worst-case scenario. Do I have a ruptured ulcer, or do I have cancer? I’ve been panicking all month.” It’s somewhat of a relief to know what the probable cause is, she adds, because “now we know exactly what we’re testing for. Before it was a shot in the dark.” That shot in the dark has proved a costly one: One Reddit user reports “several thousand dollars in medical bills pouring in, with more still to come” — and that’s with insurance.
Had Daily Harvest embarked on an aggressive and proactive information campaign, product-safety lawyer Jeffrey Bowersox believes an anxiety-inducing and costly situation could’ve been avoided. Instead, they opted for a communications strategy many customers view as lackluster at best. “It seems to me that a key question in this entire matter is what did Daily Harvest know about this consumer complaint and when did they know it?” says Bowersox, who is now working with some of the people who’ve consumed the lentils and suffered the consequences. Bowersox is puzzled by the company’s instructions that customers throw out any crumbles they might have sitting in their freezers. “This stuff should not be destroyed,” Bowersox emphasizes. “It should be preserved and tested because particularly if it’s a toxin, the amount of the toxin contained in any individual package that someone’s eating from can be a key component to the extent of their injury.” And then, it is very easy to miss an email — particularly one bearing the mild headline, “Important information about your French Lentil + Leek crumbles.” (Daily Harvest sent out “please read” emails with that subject line, on June 17, 18, and 20.)
“At least as clients related to me, they thought, ‘Oh, this is a minor problem,’” Bowersox says. “People were not concerned or maybe even didn’t see it in their email.” And then there are the potential customers who don’t use social media: If the pile of shared experience mounting online has allowed Daily Harvest subscribers to connect the dots on their mystery disease, what about the ones who don’t use Reddit? Who haven’t been on Instagram or TikTok or Twitter, and who may now be finding out about the snafu not from the service they pay money to use, but from the news? In Bowersox’s view, the company’s calm, quiet notices fell far short of the blaring-alarms response these medical issues deserved.
Past feeling inadequate, to Caroline S., the emails read as a middle finger. Caroline consumed the compromised lentil crumbles on June 14, as part of a taco salad. She says things went sideways while she was still eating: “My stomach turned,” she recalls. That wave of nausea escalated to stabbing pain within hours, a sensation that initially felt like food poisoning or bad gas, but located near her diaphragm. “It felt like the devil’s grip,” she says of the cramping, which kept her up through the night. Caroline developed a fever and intense sweats. She says she remained unable to swallow more than an Aleve and a little liquid for much of the week. She finally decided to go to the hospital on June 18th, after looking in the toilet to discover her stool had turned “completely white,” she explains. Her doctors, like Silverman and Dargenzio’s, were stumped. Her liver-enzyme levels were up, but her scans and ultrasounds came back normal. Her symptoms didn’t add up, but then — as she waited in the ER — Caroline saw a Daily Harvest email warning her to stay away from the crumbles. The Cut has reviewed this email, which includes recommendations about the proper way to cook lentils to avoid “gastrointestinal symptoms.”
“I’m like, ‘I cooked the lentils two minutes purposely past cooking time because I wanted them to be like crispy taco meat. So actually, fuck you. Don’t tell me I didn’t cook my lentils,’” Caroline said.
Over a week out from the onset of her symptoms, Caroline is still feeling sick. She says she can’t manage more than rice and a little fruit. “The unknown is the scariest part, and just sitting and waiting for your blood tests to finally be normal again is just where we are in life now,” she says. For all Daily Harvest’s claims that it values people and their well-being above all else, it bothers Caroline that the company has not explicitly apologized for the health crisis its products may have caused. “I’m willing to acknowledge shit happens,” she says, “but the fact that they didn’t get in front of it, and the fact that they made us feel even worse, and almost gaslit us into being like, ‘You didn’t cook it. It’s your fault,’ was like, Jesus Christ.”