From petri dish to plate: The £172m fungi

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When a team of scientists discovered a fungus called Fusarium venenatum in a wheat field 38 years ago, their hope was that it would save humanity.

The research was part of an ultimately abortive race against time to produce artificial protein before population growth overtook natural resources and created global famine.

Instead, the humble soil mould yesterday became the subject of a £172m takeover and a consumer phenomenon when Quorn - the name given to the meat-substitute or "mycoprotein" derived from F. venenatum - was bought by one of Britain's largest food processing companies.

Premier Foods, whose portfolio includes Branston Pickle and Typhoo Tea, announced that it intended to extend the market for products ranging from Quorn Pork Style Ribsters to Quorn Tikka Masala.

Rather than averting mass starvation, the discoverers of F. venenatum now find themselves credited with extending consumer choice beyond the vegetarian movement into a convenience food sector worth a potential £775m a year.

St Albans-based Premier Foods, which earlier this year was at the centre of Britain's biggest food recall over the carcinogenic food dye Sudan 1, is aiming to expand the £155m meat-substitute market five-fold by targeting what it describes as "healthy eaters".

Robert Schofield, chief executive of Premier Foods, which bought Quorn from a private equity company, said: "Quorn is a brand which has grown under the radar. Most people think it is still a niche product but it is bigger than Kellogg's Cornflakes in this country.

"We can see even greater potential in the growth in healthy eating beyond the vegetarian sector. We will be reorienting the marketing and doubling the investment. We expect this to be the largest brand in our portfolio."

Despite its origins in a 1960s petri dish and its production in vast steel fermenting vats, Quorn is popular with vegetarians.

Sales of Quorn have grown by 7 to 8 per cent each year since 2002 and it now accounts for 60 per cent of the meat-substitute market in Britain.

Marlow Foods, the North Yorkshire holding company for the Quorn range, has expanded at a rate of 50 per cent a year since 1994 and calls itself Europe's largest meat-alternative company.

A food industry analyst said: "Convenience foods have been a huge growth sector but there is a perception that they are horribly unhealthy. In a climate where obesity and heart disease rates are rising, something like Quorn has an opportunity to expand significantly by emphasising its high-fibre and low-fat attributes."

Behind the transformation of the contents of a soil sample into a product eaten by 20 million Europeans each year lies an intriguing tale of pioneering science and slick marketing.

The search for artificial sources of protein was prompted in the 1960s by fears that food supplies for humans and animals would be rapidly exceeded by global population growth.

Petroleum and chemical companies, including BP and ICI, funded projects to coax edible yeasts, moulds and bacterium to grow on mediums including sugar cane stalks, cassava meal and manure.

A team from ICI eventually found F. venenatum but it was not until 1985 that the government gave approval for the sale of Quorn.

The range has been dogged by the long-running campaign by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based group which last month filed a lawsuit against the US manufacturer and retailer of Quorn saying it causes "unsavoury gastrointestinal symptoms" such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea and allergic reactions. The lobby group claims it recorded more than 800 cases of allergic reactions but Britain's Food Standards Agency puts the rate of allergy at one in 146,000 people, compared to one in 3,000 for soya products.

Three years ago the company was forced to change its labelling after trading standards staff objected to the use of the term "mushroom protein" on its meat-style products such as ham, chicken nuggets and Swedish meat balls. Marlow agreed to change the description of Quorn to a "nutritious member of the fungi family".

Quorn's progress

* The food is produced in 155,000-litre fermenters using Fusarium venenatum and a glucose-based growing medium. Each fermenter can run for six weeks.

* It has averaged sales growth of 37 per cent a year since 1993 and is the leading brand in Britain's £550m meat-free food market.

* One in five UK households will eat Quorn each year. More than 20 million people across Europe eat the product annually.

* Quorn has 11.8 grams of protein and 4.8 grams of fat in every 100 grams. The equivalent figures for beef are 23.1 grams and 15.2 grams.