Jenna Dargenzio was excited to dig into her first Daily Harvest delivery.
On May 11, she whipped up the subscription service’s French lentil and leek “crumbles,” part of a PR package that the company hoped she would peddle to her 66,000 followers on TikTok.
The finished product looks and functions much like seasoned bits of tofu. It can be sprinkled on a salad as a savory garnish or wedged into taco shells. She ate it for dinner at around 8:30 p.m.
“By the 12th at like 5 a.m, I was hurled over, throwing up, in excruciating pain, freaking out,” Dargenzio, 32, told The Daily Beast.
Her husband Marc Conklin woke up to the sounds of his crying wife hovering above the toilet. They say they decided to go to the ER.
Dargenzio, a content creator and jewelry designer who lives in Los Angeles, was given morphine while the nurses scrambled to find out what was wrong.
“Most tests were coming back fine. They thought I had a UTI,” she said. “They didn’t know what to test for.”
They sent her home at around 10 a.m., but with the morphine subsiding and the Tylenol powerless against her pain, she rushed back to the ER that same afternoon.
“I run inside, I’m crying in the lobby,” she recalled.
Doctors ordered an endoscopy, which showed “a lot of inflammation,” Dargenzio said. She was bedridden for a week until the pain slowly faded away, but that was just the beginning of her and Conklin’s nightmare. Because they hadn’t yet linked Dargenzio’s illness to the crumbles, he ate the leftovers.
Little by little, he started exhibiting his own symptoms: dark urine, extreme itchiness.
“We’re googling what are signs of extreme itchiness and it does say liver damage,” Dargenzio said.
Eventually, tests revealed that his liver enzymes were elevated, a tell-tale sign of a damaged liver.
“At that point, he had eaten the crumbles. It slowly built up in his system and created the toxicity symptoms. We had no clue it was the crumbles until Saturday when we saw Abby’s TikTok,” she explained, referring to a video by Cosmopolitan Digital Creative Director Abby Sillverman that blew the lid on #lentilgate.
In the video, Silverman goes over a scenario that sounds exactly the same as Dargenzio’s, from getting the crumbles in a PR box to ending up at the hospital waiting on a series of test results.
“When I watched the video I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ My mind was blown. I was listening to it and I was like, ‘Wait…I ate the crumbles.’”
Dargenzio is one of hundreds of frustrated Daily Harvest customers who have complained of nausea, vomiting, fever, fatigue, stomach cramps, and loss of sleep and appetite after eating the infamous lentil dish. A few say they’ve had to have their gallbladders removed. Many of them have congregated on Reddit, finding solace in their shockingly similar experiences while Daily Harvest puts out boilerplate statements urging their customers to throw away the risky legumes. (Daily Harvest did not respond to requests for comment.)
Launched in 2015 by Rachel Drori, Daily Harvest markets itself as an Instagram-ready delivery service bridging the gap between convenience and nutrition. It counts celebrities like Bobby Flay, Shaun White, Haylie Duff, Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams among its investors, according to Forbes, and it heavily promotes itself on social media, where its minimalist design and overfilled smoothie cups are instantly recognizable to anyone who spends time on endless feeds.
Dargenzio is one of the unlucky few who got the product for free one month before it was distributed to the general public, but plenty of customers had to pay for the privilege of being saddled with thousands of dollars in debt and uncertain medical outcomes.
Freelance copywriter and actress Caroline Sweet, 37, transitioned to Daily Harvest just four months ago. She was lured by how easy it is to prepare the items compared to services like HelloFresh, which deliver ingredients that have to be prepared and cooked according to precise instructions.
“They required less assembly and I’m lazy,” she told The Daily Beast. “You just reheat it in the oven or microwave it.”
Last Tuesday night, she added the crumbles to a salad she ordered elsewhere. She could barely finish it.
“My stomach churned halfway through,” she said.
She threw the food away and went about her nightly routine, though she was slightly bothered by what she describes as an “upper stomach cramp.”
Thinking it wasn’t too serious, she took some Gas-X and performed a variety of exercises and stretches, pressing her knees against her stomach to try to alleviate her discomfort. She frantically Googled phrases like “diaphragm pain” in search of something that could describe the sensation.
“Finally at 6 a.m. I just call it, hobble to the bathtub, start the bath, lay in the bath, schedule a telehealth appointment, and I’m crying in the bathtub,” she said.
“Finally at 6 a.m. I just call it, hobble to the bathtub, start the bath, lay in the bath, schedule a telehealth appointment, and I’m crying in the bathtub…”
The online doctor advised her to go to the ER, but Sweet lives alone and didn’t feel comfortable driving herself in that state. It was also early, and she didn’t want to burden her friends by asking for a ride to the hospital.
She spent the next couple of days at home drinking coconut water—one of the few things she can swallow and keep down—and taking ibuprofen.
“I probably would’ve ridden it out if I hadn’t woken up on Saturday morning to white stool. I thought, ‘OK, that cannot be good.’”
At the hospital, she was told her white blood cell count was low, a common sign of a viral infection, and that her liver enzyme levels were “insanely high.”
While on the phone with The Daily Beast on Thursday morning, Sweet was heading into a doctor’s office to check her enzyme levels once more.
“My life is now getting my blood drawn every couple of days,” she said.
On Sunday, Daily Harvest publicly acknowledged the disaster in a widely criticized email. The company appeared to shift blame to consumers for not cooking the lentils property.
“As included in our cooking instructions, lentils must be thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of 165℉,” the company said, according to a copy of the private email provided to The Daily Beast. “Like some other legumes, raw lentils contain a type of protein that can cause gastrointestinal symptoms unless thoroughly cooked.”
The service directed customers to throw the product away, which would prevent them from offering the package up for testing to the Food and Drug Administration. (Multiple customers on Reddit say FDA representatives have collected product samples from their homes, but the federal agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.) Most insultingly, the company offered customers a $10 credit “for every bag of French Lentil + Leek Crumbles in your last box.”
Sweet couldn’t believe it.
“As a former publicist, this is the exact wrong textbook way to handle something,” Sweet said. “I got their initial email while I was sitting in an ER bed freaking out that I would have to have surgery. The way that email reads is like, ‘Not a big deal.’ And to go on and say you probably cooked the lentils wrong? Firstly, minimize my pain. Secondly, tell me it’s my fault. Third, dispose the food and then tell me, ‘Here’s $10.”
“There’s been a lot of cover-up, it feels like,” she added.
On Wednesday, the company released a follow-up statement announcing a voluntary recall of the lentils in cooperation with the FDA. The subscription service said that all “pathogen and toxicology results have come back negative,” and it doubled down on its plea for customers to throw the lentils away.
On Thursday, it updated its statement to reflect that about 28,000 lentil packages were distributed to customers from April 28 to June 17. The company said it had directly received 470 reports of illnesses or adverse reactions.
After spending days worrying about what the next day would bring, Sweet choked up when asked about the product’s possible impact on her long-term health.
“Because they don’t know what it is. There’s no type—they don’t know what it is. I just can’t go there,” she said through tears. “All I have to go from is, eventually, my enzyme levels will go down and hopefully that’s that. I just—I can’t go there.”
Sweet hoped to recover in time for a wine tasting she had previously scheduled for the Fourth of July, but she admitted that’s probably no longer happening.
Dargenzio said she feels better, but not “100 percent” like herself. Even if she fully recovers, she’s not entirely sure that her bank account will.
Her medical bills from the fiasco have reached $20,000, including $8,000 for the first ER visit, $10,000 for the second one (after she was told to go home and ride the pain out), and $1,500 for the endoscopy. On top of that, she lost out on a week’s worth of work.
Her husband, a technical designer who works at a firm that builds structures for museums, amusement parks and sets, also had to miss work.
The couple could be entitled to compensation for lost wages, medical bills and emotional distress if they sue, said attorney Bill Marler, who has specialized in foodborne illness litigation for more than three decades.
In 1993, the Seattle-based lawyer represented many of the kids who got sick from an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in four states. More than 700 people were infected and four children died.
But before any lawsuits are filed, Marler explained that a direct link between Daily Harvest and the countless reports of similar symptoms must be established. He and his in-house epidemiologist and nurse are currently in the process of analyzing the medical records of the nearly 30 people who have reached out to him about the lentils so far. They’re also sending leftover product samples to an FDA-approved lab for testing.
“Because they don’t know what it is. There’s no type—they don’t know what it is. I just can’t go there. All I have to go from is, eventually, my enzyme levels will go down and hopefully that’s that. I just—I can’t go there.”
“So the lab is looking at what are the common symptoms and then what sorts of pathogens or chemicals or toxins would mimic that,” he said, adding that it can take weeks, if not months, to figure out what’s responsible for those kinds of connections.
“You have a bunch of people with similar complaints and symptoms who consumed the product within a few days of each other,” Marler told The Daily Beast. “That makes it sound like it’s some kind of toxin or chemical that wound itself into the product, but before I file a lawsuit against Daily Harvest, I’m going to come to the conclusion that it’s clearly that product that is making people sick.”
Dargenzio said her issue with Daily Harvest is about far more than just money.
“I think the main issue is their lack of accountability,” Dargenzio maintained. “They’re being so avoidant. They could’ve protected so many people if they had been upfront from the get-go.”
Sweet hasn’t gotten her ER bill yet, but she said she’s “nervous” and “scared” to see the final dollar amount.
Online sleuths have speculated that the illness caused by the lentils could be attributed to aflotoxins, fungi that are found on decaying crops, but this hasn’t been confirmed by any federal or medical authorities.
“It’s definitely a mold or a fungus or something else,” Sweet said, agreeing that the aflatoxin explanation seems plausible. “I can’t believe I’m even saying these words. Why do I know this shit?”