FDA investigating illness linked to Lucky Charms

Dive Brief:

  • The FDA is investigating reports of illnesses linked to General Mills’ Lucky Charms cereal after receiving complaints from at least 231 consumers who said they or their children got sick after eating the cereal. Thousands more have reported illness after consuming Lucky Charms to the website iwaspoisoned.com. There have been no known hospitalizations from consumers who claimed to have gotten sick.
  • According to the FDA’s website, an on-site inspection of General Mills facilities that produce the marshmallow and oat cereal has been initiated. In a statement to Food Dive, General Mills spokesperson Andrea Williamson said the cereal giant is “thoroughly investigating this matter and fully cooperating with the FDA,” but that it has not found any evidence that its products caused consumer illness.
  • Illness caused by dry cereal is generally uncommon as it is fully cooked, with zero incidents reported to the FDA since 2020 until Lucky Charms. 

Dive Insight:

The main ingredients of Lucky Charms — whole grain oats, sugar and corn starch — are not often linked to specific food-based pathogens like E. coli or salmonella. According to the FDA, since 2020 there have been at least three investigations of foodborne illness linked to dry foods such as baby powder formula and cake mix. That is contrasted with 14 investigations about sickness related to fresh foods, like meat and lettuce.

The complaints received by the FDA only amount to a fraction of the consumers who claim Lucky Charms have made them or their children sick. The founder of iwaspoisoned.com, a website where consumers can submit reports about foodborne illnesses, told The Wall Street Journal his site has received nearly 3,000 reports from people saying Lucky Charms made them sick this year. And more reports continue to appear on the site Monday morning. In all of 2021, the website only received 100 complaints about any kind of cereal.

In 2018, at least 135 consumers were sickened, and 34 hospitalized, by Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal, resulting in a recall. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the illnesses were caused by an outbreak of salmonella because of unsanitary conditions in Kerry Inc. facilities, which Kellogg sourced the cereal from according to Food Safety News.

Past incidents of foodborne illness from dry ingredients include a recall in 2016 by General Mills after E. coli was detected in flour, making people who consumed raw dough sick. In 2019, Pillsbury also recalled flour but this time because of salmonella, which had downstream effects on its dry cake and dessert products. Lucky Charms, however, do not contain wheat and are gluten-free.

Despite the reported sicknesses, Lucky Charms has not yet been recalled. It can take months for a thorough investigation to occur. The 2018 Honey Smacks recall was announced three months after illness was first reported. Some have criticized the speed at which the FDA handles foodborne illness. Last December, the FDA released a plan for how to address foodborne outbreaks more quickly after it was reported that the agency knew about an outbreak linked to baby formula four months before it issued a recall, after an infant had died.

If sales slow because of the investigation, General Mills could feel some impact. Lucky Charms was America’s fourth most popular ready-to-eat cereal in 2019, according to Statista data. John Nudi, the company’s president of North American retail operations, said in the company’s December earnings call that its cereal business had performed very strong over the past four years.