May 14, 2011

MAINE COMPASS: Wild mushroom program designed to protect the public

Greg A. Marley

With growing dismay, I read George Smith's column, "Maine has a mushrooming problem at the State House," on May 11. The column reflected his uninformed rebuff of the efforts of the Wild Mushroom Harvesting Task Force and L.D. 1407, An Act To Establish the Maine Wild Mushroom Harvesting Certification Program.

Smith's column ignores or misrepresents major features of the legislation and the intent of the certification program. A few clarifications seem in order:

* The wild mushroom certification program requires someone in the chain between the forest floor and the consumer to be certified as a trained and competent mushroom identifier under specific rules. The certified person can be the forager who collects the mushroom, the broker who buys from the forager or the chef or market employee who buys the mushroom from the forager or broker.

A forager who is not certified can sell his or her mushrooms to a person who is certified. A certified forager, however, can sell to anyone and likely will command a higher price by avoiding the middleman.

* Many members of the Task Force agree with Smith that any responsible chef or market manager should be as educated in mushroom identification as the pickers. We have heard from many chefs who plan to get trained and certified.

* The legislation states "certification fees may not exceed $200," but the cost of the training class and the testing and certification process is expected to be $75. Certification will be good for five years.

* The Federal Food Code, as adopted by Maine and most other states, does require that all wild mushrooms offered for sale be identified by their Latin names; a requirement that has been in place but ignored until this time. Since the common names for many mushrooms are regional and variable, this helps make sure everyone is referring to the same mushroom with the same name. Not all mushrooms are as universally known as the chanterelle.

* Maine has a culture of free access to any unposted land, but I have never assumed that meant free harvesting of forest products on private property. The training for mushroom foragers will include guidelines on responsible foraging practices, including recommendations to obtain permission before harvesting on any property not owned by the forager.

Other states have addressed the commercial harvest and sale of wild mushrooms differently than the proposed Maine program.

At least six states have banned the sale of wild mushrooms outright. Several other states have proposed or implemented programs similar to Maine's, but have only one approved mushroom, the morel. Maine's wild mushroom certification program, which currently includes 37 different edible mushrooms, likely will result in more foragers collecting and selling different mushrooms under conditions that increase the safety of the buying public.

For the past 30 years that I have lived in Maine, I have been a private mushroom collector and have grown exotic mushrooms for sale. I occasionally forage and sell wild mushrooms and have bought mushrooms from foragers to resell in medicinal products. I teach classes about wild mushroom identification, publish an e-newsletter about mushrooms that goes to 2,500 people and have two mushroom books in print. I also took the chanterelle photograph that accompanies Smith's article.

I have volunteered as a mushroom identification consultant to regional poison centers for the past 10 years and am an active member and director of the Maine Mycological Association. I have been a member of the Task Force since its inception and volunteered several hundred hours in the preparation of this program. Neither I nor other members of the mycological associaiton who do the training expect to earn much money from our effort.

I have trained several hundred Mainers to collect mushrooms for their own use and I know how easy it is for a new mushroomer to make a mistake that ends in a sickening. Our goal is make sure Mainers can buy wild mushrooms with confidence.

Greg A. Marley, of Rockland, is author of "Mushrooms for Health" and a director of the Maine Mycological Association.

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