(CNN) Instagram-friendly meal kit service Daily Harvest is facing a firestorm of online backlash over the voluntary recall of one of its products, after a slew of people who consumed it reported becoming ill with mysterious symptoms, including extremely elevated liver enzymes.
The direct-to-consumer brand has long utilized a network of online influencers to promote its products. Now several influencers, who say they were sickened, say the company's lackluster handling of the crisis is putting new responsibility on the influencer community to warn the public.
It's also exposing the swift fallout that can emerge when you aggrieve a demographic with such a wide internet reach.
"This company was built on the backs of influencers," said Cory Silverstein, who runs an organic skincare brand with his wife, and told CNN Business he received the product, called French Lentil and Leek Crumbles, as part of a PR package in mid-May.
"That is what built them up to be like a billion-dollar valuation company, is all these influencers who did the marketing for them," he added. "At this point, it's the influencers who are alerting the public that you might end up in the hospital if you eat this product."
After consuming the product, Silverstein said, "I've never experienced pain like that — it's the first time I felt kind of helpless."
In response to CNN Business' multiple requests for comment, Daily Harvest sent the latest update the company posted on their website related to the voluntary recall.
"We want to make sure you have the latest update on our voluntary recall of French Lentil + Leek Crumbles. We are taking this very seriously and doing everything we can to get to the bottom of this. Your health and well-being are our top priority," the blog post states, adding that it has reached out to impacted customers and is taking a number of steps to investigate the cause.
"We are working with a group of experts to help us get to the bottom of this—that includes microbiologists, toxin and pathogen experts as well as allergists," the statement from Daily Harvest adds. "All pathogen and toxicology results have come back negative so far, but we're continuing to do extensive testing and will keep you updated."
In an updated blog post Thursday evening, the company said it has received approximately 470 reports of illness or adverse reaction, and the investigation into the root cause remains ongoing. It added that some 28,000 units of the recalled product were distributed in the US between April 28 to June 17.
On June 17, the company first emailed people who received the product warning that "a small number of customers have reported gastrointestinal discomfort" after consuming the crumbles and urging those who still had them to throw them away. It first posted a statement warning the public not to consume the crumbles on June 19.
Launched in 2016, Daily Harvest's emergence as a household name was linked in large part to its aggressive social media campaigns. The company has received multiple celebrity supporters, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams (representatives for Paltrow and Williams did not immediately respond to CNN Business' request for comment).
The meal kit company announced last November that it had secured Series D funding that valued Daily Harvest at over $1 billion.
Silverstein said he spent time in an urgent care center where doctors scrambled to figure out what was wrong. He tested negative for all forms of hepatitis, the initial suspect, and did a slew of blood tests that eventually indicated liver enzyme levels that were off the charts. He says that levels of important liver enzymes were elevated as much as twelve times the normal range.
He spent weeks not knowing the cause of the mysterious illness, until he said his wife saw a post from fellow influencer Luke Wesley Pearson, a content creator from Portland. Pearson was reporting shockingly similar symptoms, he said, and the two realized they had both received these crumbles from the company before they were launched on the public market.
Pearson told CNN Business that he underwent emergency surgery on June 12 to get his gallbladder removed after experiencing gastrointestinal issues after consuming the crumbles.
Pearson says he tried the lentil crumbles twice, both times leading to intense stomach aches. It was the second try, however, that sent him to the ER. After symptoms that included "excruciating" stomach pains, fever, chills, itching of the hands and feet, and jaundice, Pearson underwent testing that revealed -- just like Silverstein -- elevated liver enzymes, as well as high bilirubin. Doctors ultimately decided to remove Pearson's gallbladder.
For Pearson, it was only after seeing a viral TikTok by Abby Silverman that he realized the issues could be connected to the food he ingested immediately before his issues began. Silverman, a creative director in New York, posted a video that has garnered more than 100,000 likes on TikTok detailing her own experience after eating the Daily Harvest product. She said the lentils similarly landed her in the ER, twice, with alarmingly high liver enzyme levels. While she suspected it may be from the crumbles, she said she formally connected her medical crisis with the lentils after an email from Daily Harvest on June 19 recalling the food item led her to a Reddit thread of scores of other people detailing similar symptoms. Silverman's lawyer, Mark Apostolos, confirmed to CNN Business in a statement that medical records document her illness and symptoms.
"It's interesting because I have seen a lot of people on social media over the years try Daily Harvest, which is why I said yes to the PR package," Silverman told CNN Business.
"This whole health situation has just caused so much anxiety," said Silverman, who has retained a lawyer, Apostolos, to deal with the fallout. "Obviously, I didn't expect this. I made the video that I did because I feel like they weren't doing enough to make people aware of what was going on -- I figured people probably still had this in their freezer."
"We are investigating and evaluating all legal remedies for Abby, who was stricken with illness after consuming this product that was mailed to her," said Apostolos in a statement.
Another customer who had her gallbladder removed was Candice Smith, who told CNN Business she initially thought she was having a heart attack after consuming the product. "It was the worst night of my life," said Smith, the CEO of French Press Public Relations in Raleigh, of the night she rushed to the hospital -- where she says she stayed for four days undergoing tests on her enlarged liver and elevated liver enzymes. Her gallbladder was removed on June 19.
The company declined to comment on claims that customers underwent gallbladder surgeries related to its product. All of the people who spoke to CNN Business said doctors were initially puzzled by their symptoms.
Smith said she had no relevant pre-existing medical conditions before the hospital visit. "I try to be healthy. I eat plant-based, I'm trying to do all the right things," said Smith. "What am I doing here? Why am I even here? Why am I experiencing this level of pain in my life?"
Caroline Sweet, a freelance actor and writer in Los Angeles, said she was in the emergency room emerging from a CT scan after enduring days of being "completely doubled-over in pain" when she received an email on June 17 from Daily Harvest informing her to throw away the crumbles and offering her a $10 store credit. (The company said in a blogpost all consumers were issued a credit for the recalled product).
"It was just like a huge f**k you," Sweet said of the email. "The fact that they're just handling it so poorly feels like such a huge slap in the face."
Sarah Schacht, a consultant and property manager in Seattle, said she similarly became "violently ill" after consuming the product that she said she was initially drawn to for its organic and health-forward marketing. "Everyone who's on the internet has been served Daily Harvest ads, right?" she said.
Schacht has been vocal on Twitter about urging people to take samples to local health departments or their Food and Drug Administration offices.
Silverstein, meanwhile, said he was incredibly dismayed by the Instagram post Daily Harvest used to alert customers of the recall. The post, which was published on June 19, simply used a previous promotional picture of the crumble -- and directed people to click a link for an "important message," which directed them to a blog post about the voluntary recall. At a first glance, Silverstein said most people would assume that the post was promoting the product. Daily Harvest has since removed the post he referenced from their Instagram, which was widely blasted as insensitive.
The FDA told CNN Business in a statement that it cannot confirm or deny if an investigation is occurring that is not already listed on its website. "However, the FDA takes seriously reports of possible adulteration of a food that may also cause illnesses or injury," an FDA spokesperson said in a statement.
The agency added that when specific consumer guidance can be developed, the FDA and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will publish outbreak advisories communicating that guidance to the public.
"I'm very angry because we are all being left in the dark without answers," said Pearson. "I know that accidents happen all the time in the food industry, and I've just seen other companies who are completely transparent, speaking up and making loud and clear announcements of what's going on and what the next steps are and what they found out so far."
Silverstein added that he feels that some of the onus has fallen on influencers to alert their followers. While the company emailed customers and posted a statement on its website, he thinks they should be doing more to make people aware on social media.
While he and his wife have worked with Daily Harvest for some five years now, and never had any issues in the past, he said they have no choice but to "cut off our relationship with them."