They may be magically delicious, but this week Lucky Charms are in the spotlight for a very different reason.
According to a mountain of consumer claims, the cereal is causing an array of gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea and diarrhea. The US Food and Drug Administration says it has received “hundreds” of complaints about the cereal this year. The food safety site iwaspoisoned.com, which lets consumers warn others when they believe a product has sickened them, paints an even more alarming picture, citing 4,500 reports of illness.
“I never take off from work but had to take two sick days because I was so ill. I honestly thought I would die,” wrote one poster. “It robbed me of a week of my life and my love for cereal as we have not had any since.”
But what’s really going on? Food safety lawyers suggest that this case may say more about human nature than about hearts, moons and horseshoes.
The FDA and General Mills, maker of the cereal, say in statements that they are investigating the case. General Mills says it has found no evidence of illness linked to the cereal, and experts are hesitant to make assumptions.
William Marler, a lawyer who has been at the center of food safety battles for decades, isn’t convinced that the cereal is to blame for the reported illnesses. “Correlation is not necessarily causation,” he wrote in an email to the Guardian, echoing comments by colleagues elsewhere.
He noted the common experience of Googling a handful of symptoms and learning that the itch on your arm is almost definitely proof of a fatal illness. Something similar may be happening here, Marler suggests.
“People try to connect the dots between something that’s happening and something that’s known, but the connection may not necessarily be accurate,” he said in a phone interview.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people today in the United States that are having vomiting and diarrhea, from a bunch of different causes. And it also may be happening that some of those thousandsof people also happen to eat Lucky Charms. And now they’re seeing it in the news and they’re going: ‘Hey, wait a second. I had diarrhea a week ago, and I ate Lucky Charms. Therefore, it had to be the Lucky Charms.””
In some cases, many of the complainants may be right about the link between their symptoms and a particular food product – while many others are wrong about the same thing. He describes a 2007 case in which several hundred people got sick from salmonella detected in Peter Pan peanut butter jars. “But we got 5,000 phone calls … And the vast majority of them were people who go, ‘Well, no, I didn’t have any medical treatment,’” he said.
“You knew that there was a clear outbreak link to a product. But then you still had thousands of people presuming that they got sick from eating the product. And they probably did not.”
That’s not at all to suggest that people are making up their symptoms or trying to “game the system” – just that it’s very challenging to ascertain the source. “That’s why foodborne illness cases are sometimes really, really difficult to figure out,” he said. Without “solid epidemiological evidence – you have stool culture, you have purchase history, you have the product testing positive, you have, unfortunately, lots of people getting sick, so you can tell the common denominator of what it is – it’s kind of hard to put it together.”
And of course, some people posting online about a connection between their symptoms and a source are absolutely right, and social media such as iwaspoisoned.com can be a useful tool for getting to the root of a problem. Marler once got a call from a customer saying she’d gotten salmonella from a Los Angeles restaurant and posted about it on Yelp – where dozens of others had said the same thing on the same day. “Ultimately, the Yelp review was correct,” he said. “It was an early warning system for getting the health department to act.”
As for the Lucky Charms, Marler says he’d like to see some more hard evidence – testing of products, clear diagnoses of customers’ illnesses – to learn more.
Such illnesses aren’t unheard of; In 2018, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks – the ones with the frog on the box – were associated with a salmonella outbreak that hospitalized 34 people, according to the CDC. Kellogg’s recalled the cereal that June.
And last year, a Los Angeles comedian made waves online when he claimed to have discovered shrimp tails in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch, leading to a very public exchange with General Mills.
In the meantime, some customers will be wary of Lucky Charms, which celebrates its 60th birthday in 2024. As another post said: “I used to eat Lucky Charms all of the time, right before bed. Never again.”