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 a variety 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. Food safety site iwaspoisoned.com, which allows consumers to warn others when they think a product has made them sick, paints an even more alarming picture, citing 4,500 illness reports.
“I never leave work, but I had to take two sick days because I was so sick. I honestly thought she would die,” wrote one poster. “She stole a week of my life and my love for cereal since we haven’t had any since.”
But what is really going on? Food safety lawyers suggest this case may say more about human nature than 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 disease linked to the grain, and experts are hesitant to make any assumptions.
William Marler, a lawyer who has been at the center of food safety battles for decades, isn’t convinced that cereal is to blame for the reported illnesses. “Correlation is not necessarily causation,” he wrote in an email to The Guardian, echoing comments from colleagues elsewhere.
He pointed to the common experience of Googling a handful of symptoms and finding that an itchy arm is almost definitely proof of a deadly disease. Something similar may be happening here, Marler suggests.
“People try to connect the dots between something that is happening and something that is known, but the connection may not necessarily be accurate,” he said in a phone interview.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people in the United States today who have vomiting and diarrhea, from many different causes. And it may also be happening that some of those thousands of people also eat Lucky Charms. And now they’re seeing it on the news and they’re like, ‘Hey, wait a second. I had diarrhea a week ago and 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 item, while many others are wrong about the same thing. He describes a 2007 case in which several hundred people became ill with salmonella detected in Peter Pan peanut butter jars. “But we got 5,000 phone calls… And the vast majority of them were people saying, ‘Well, no, I didn’t have any medical treatment,’” he said.
“You knew there was a clear link between the outbreak and a product. But then there were still thousands of people who were supposed to have gotten sick from eating the product. And they probably didn’t.”
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 hard to pinpoint the source. “That’s why foodborne illness cases are sometimes very, very difficult to solve,” he said. Without “strong epidemiological evidence — you’ve got a stool culture, you’ve got a purchasing history, you’ve got a product that tests positive — unfortunately, a lot of people get sick, so you can say the common denominator of what it is — it’s a little hard for put it together”.
And of course, some people who post online about a connection between their symptoms and a source are absolutely right, and social media like iwaspoisoned.com can be a useful tool in getting to the root of a problem. Marler once received a call from a customer saying she had contracted salmonella at a Los Angeles restaurant and posted it on Yelp, where dozens of people said the same thing the same day. “In the end, the Yelp review was correct,” she said. “It was an early warning system for the health department to act.”
As for the Lucky Charms, Marler says he’d like to see more solid evidence (product testing, clear diagnoses of customer illnesses) to learn more.
Such diseases are not unknown; 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.
Meanwhile, some customers will be wary of Lucky Charms, which is celebrating its 60th birthday in 2024. As another post said: “I used to eat Lucky Charms all the time, right before bed. Never more.”