May 12, 2011

Lawmakers consider tough fungi law

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Nearly three years after a couple of Portland chefs got sick from eating poisonous mushrooms, Maine lawmakers may adopt the nation's most extensive food safety regulations for wild fungi.

click image to enlarge

The poisonous jack-o-lantern mushroom is sometimes mistaken for the edible chanterelle.

Greg Marley/Mushrooms for Health

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The edible and popular chanterelle.

Greg Marley/Mushrooms for Health

Legislators are considering a bill to require that at least one person who is trained and certified to identify edible wild mushrooms handle the delicacies before they are sold at markets or served in restaurants.

"Many of the mushroom varieties look the same but are quite different when it comes to being safe to eat," said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who is the bill's sponsor and a restaurant owner. "It would be a product we'd love to sell. But the way it stands now, I can't bear that risk."

The Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services Committee took up Langley's bill during a work session Monday and voted 10-0 that it ought to pass. The bill now goes to the Senate for ratification.

Maine has a relatively small wild mushroom industry with an estimated 200 commercial foragers who sell to a dealer or directly to markets or restaurant chefs.

Now, with the industry enjoying a growing interest in local, organic and wild foods, it also must satisfy public expectations that the food sold in markets or restaurants is regulated, and safe to eat.

"Maine has over 2,000 mushroom species. Of those, about 10 are common and potentially deadly," said Greg Marley, a Rockland-based author and mushroom expert who helped draft the bill. Some varieties that can cause severe intestinal distress or liver toxicity look a lot like edible ones at different stages of growth, he said.

Nationwide, poisonous mushrooms kill three or four people a year, according to the Northern New England Poison Center. No deaths have been reported in Maine in recent years, although Mainers are sickened each year when they pick and eat toxic mushrooms.

The bill before Maine's Legislature -- L.D. 1407 -- is a direct response to a pair of poisonings in the summer of 2008, when a commercial forager sold misidentified mushrooms to a couple of Portland restaurants.

Two chefs ate the mushrooms a few weeks apart and became so ill and dehydrated they had to be hospitalized. No restaurant patrons were served the mushrooms, which turned out to be poisonous lilac brown boletes instead of edible king boletes, or porcinis, officials said.

"When it happened twice, we started to become really concerned," said Dr. Karen Simone, head of the Northern New England Poison Center. "That was very unusual. ... It concerned me that restaurants were involved."

Had the mushrooms been served to an elderly or ill patron, it could have been life-threatening, she said. "These were two young, healthy people, and they got so sick that one guy needed the same treatment as a chemotherapy patient" for vomiting and dehydration.

Health officials would not identify the chefs or the restaurants involved.

The Maine CDC traced the mushrooms back to a forager, but officials could only pass the man's name to the Maine Restaurant Association so it could warn members.

"We followed up with the establishments, but don't have any regulatory authority over the person who foraged them," said Lisa Brown, health inspection program manager for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The unusual cases involving commercially harvested mushrooms led to the creation of a state task force that included foragers, chefs, the Maine Restaurant Association, health officials and mycologists, or people who study fungi.

The task force came up with the proposal to require training and certification. If it passes, wild mushrooms could be sold to the public only if they are handled by someone ? a forager, dealer or chef ? who is trained and certified every five years to identify edible and poisonous mushrooms.

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