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Daily Harvest’s vegan frozen meals saved women time. Then the $1.1 billion startup’s food safety debacle broke their trust

August 16, 2022, 1:42 PM UTC
Daily Harvest founder and CEO Rachel Drori.
Courtesy of Daily Harvest

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Liz Cheney faces her primary, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issues an overdue apology, and we take a close look at Daily Harvest’s food safety crisis. Have a lovely Tuesday.

Today’s guest essay comes to us from Fortune senior editor Beth Kowitt.

—Daily Harvest debacle. Daily Harvest is a startup designed for people with busy lives—for those juggling family and work, and trying to fit some semblance of a healthy lifestyle in between. So it’s no surprise that I talked to mostly women while reporting on the vegan frozen food delivery service’s food safety debacle.

In mid-June, Daily Harvest voluntarily recalled its French Lentil + Leek Crumbles, which so far are reported to have sickened nearly 500 people and sent 113 to the hospital, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Symptoms of those who allege the crumbles made them sick include stomach pain, elevated liver levels, jaundice, dark urine, fatigue, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, back pain, and shoulder pain. Bill Marler, a lawyer who says he’s representing some 350 people who claim the crumbles made them ill, says more than 25 of his clients allege that they’ve had their gallbladders removed.

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

Not surprisingly, Marler has said that most of his clients are women between the ages of 25 and 45, a core demographic. One of the women he represents is Carol Ready, a professor who lives in Tulsa, who was eating Daily Harvest products three to seven times a week to help get her through a busy semester. She ate the crumbles twice in May and both times wound up in the ER and alleges she had to have her gallbladder removed as a result. Another woman I spoke with, Tasha Peterson, is a mom of four in Utica, N.Y., with her own real estate brokerage firm and another gig as a real estate investor. She claims that eating the crumbles sent her to the ER and then to the hospital for three days while her doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with her.

One story that really struck me came from someone who never went to the hospital at all. Nicole Kidston Thomson, a working mom of a baby and toddler, says she ate the crumbles twice 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 blamed her lingering symptoms like acid reflux and fatigue on her postpartum hormones or the result of being rundown.

A month ago—and a month after its voluntary recall—Daily Harvest said that tara flour, a plant-based protein in the crumbles, is the ingredient behind the outbreak. But the company has yet to identify what exactly it is about the tara that’s made people sick. Thomson’s pediatrician recommended that she stop breastfeeding her son since it’s not clear exactly what’s at issue. She gets emotional thinking that she might have been giving him a toxin through her breast milk. “I don’t even have the information to know how freaked out we should be,” she told me.

Several of the people I talked to said that they had grown to trust the brand to the point that they never suspected the lentils had made them sick. Founded in 2015 by former Gilt Groupe marketing executive Rachel Drori and backed by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams, the company boomed during the pandemic as consumers looked for new and creative ways to eat at home. In November 2021, the company closed its Series D round of funding, valuing the startup at $1.1 billion. Key to its unicorn status had been the way Daily Harvest capitalized on the Instagram era. As I write in the story:

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.

Read the full story here.

Beth Kowitt
beth.kowitt@fortune.com
@bethkowitt

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ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

—Election day. Today is the day for Rep. Liz Cheney—the Wyoming GOP primary that will decide her future in the House of Representatives. Cheney is unlikely to hold on to her seat, with the race becoming a referendum on her opposition to the Jan. 6 insurrection and former President Donald Trump. After the election, the question will be what Cheney will do next. Washington Post

—Appeal process. Brittney Griner’s legal team filed to appeal a Russian court’s verdict that found the WNBA star guilty of smuggling drugs into Russia and sentenced her to nine years in prison. The appeal will progress independently as the U.S. negotiates a potential prisoner swap with Russia involving a convicted Russian arms dealer. CNN

—Surveillance state. Worker productivity tracking has become the norm at many companies. Beyond hourly jobs and Amazon warehouses, employers are monitoring “active time” for employees at all levels across J.P. Morgan, UnitedHealth Group, and more. One hospice chaplain, the Rev. Margo Richardson, describes earning “productivity points” for her work visiting the dying and counseling grieving relatives. New York Times

—Overdue apology. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather, the Apache actor and Native American activist who gave a speech on behalf of Marlon Brando declining his Oscar for The Godfather in 1973. Littlefeather was booed—and later blacklisted from much of Hollywood—as she declined the award for Brando, citing the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. Littlefeather was 26 at the time, and 50 years later she’s now working with the Academy on programming highlighting her experiences. The Academy’s president sent her an apology “letter that has been a long time coming,” saying that the “abuse [she] endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified.” Variety

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: As part of Warner Bros. Discovery’s restructuring of HBO Max, which included the layoffs of 70 employees, HBO EVP for programming Amy Gravitt will assume oversight of comedy on HBO Max; HBO Max head of original content Sarah Aubrey will add international programming to her responsibilities, working with Warner Bros. executives. J.C. Penney hired Stephanie Plaines as CFO. Michelle Wilson, former SVP and general counsel for Amazon, joins the board of Cockroach Labs. FuboTV hired Lynette Kaylor as SVP, advertising sales. Kevin Hart’s media company Hartbeat hired Candisse Williamson, former general counsel at Skybound Entertainment and VP at the Madison Square Garden Co., as EVP, general counsel. Paperless Parts hired Sarah McAuley as CMO. FactSet promoted Kate Stepp to chief technology officer. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

—Go with the flow. After 40 years, Eileen Fisher is getting ready to step down from her eponymous brand. Fisher has served as CEO only for the past 18 months; before that, the brand was led by collaborative teams. Patagonia chief product officer Lisa Williams will take the reins from Fisher, who has been a leader in slow fashion, including responsible production and consumption. New York Times

—Masks up. National Labor Relations Board general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is leading a lawsuit against Whole Foods, where managers barred workers from wearing Black Lives Matter face masks in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. The case is being closely watched for its wide-ranging potential impact on the rights of workers to free speech while on the job. Bloomberg

—Marriage inequality. Being married comes with financial benefits, from pooled resources to tax policies. Inflation is expanding the gap between married and single people. In 2010, married households between 25 and 34 years old had a net worth four times that of single households in the same age range; in 2019 the gap had widened to nine times, and experts say it’s likely increased since then. Wall Street Journal

ON MY RADAR

Joan Didion and Eve Babitz shared an unlikely, uneasy friendship—that shaped their worlds and work forever Vanity Fair

How a Mormon housewife turned the fake diary Go Ask Alice into an enormous bestseller The New Yorker

My mom has no friends The Cut

PARTING WORDS

“It actually made my confidence in myself grow, because it was a very brave thing to do. And I don’t think many people would have done what I did. I’m very proud of myself for standing by my artistic needs.”

—Adele, on canceling her Las Vegas residency. The pop star is on the cover of Elle’s September issue. 

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