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.
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, 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 — LD 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. . . . 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.
Individuals could be certified for as many as 35 different edible mushrooms depending on the level of training they seek, Brown said.
The Maine Mycological Association, a nonprofit group of mushroom aficionados, would coordinate the training and testing, which would cost an estimated $75, according to Brown.
While some states have patchwork rules, Maine would be the first to have a comprehensive training requirement, said Brown, who also is working with officials in other states toward a possible national standard.
“No one has this type of program that we’re drafting. All states are struggling with this,” Brown said.
Brown called Maine’s proposal a compromise to ensure public safety without placing too much burden on traditional foragers, many of whom pick mushrooms as part of a subsistence livelihood in parts of the state with few other job opportunities.
Under the bill, individual foragers would not have to be certified as long as they sell to a dealer or chef who is certified.
“We don’t want to destroy people’s livelihood. We want to make sure it stays alive and healthy. But we also want to protect public health,” Brown said.
State officials have said the state could be forced to outlaw the sale of Maine-harvested wild mushrooms if there is no training standard to guarantee public safety.
Some in the industry, however, see the regulation effort as an overreaction.
“We don’t need to be completely overburdened by more bureaucracy,” said Rick Tibbets, a forager and mushroom grower in Scarborough.
Tibbets said he has been picking and selling wild mushrooms for 40 years and doesn’t need to be tested by amateur mycologists. He proposed that the state simply register foragers and require proof of insurance. “What they would do is get rid of all the riff-raff,” he said.
Dan Heydon is an owner of Oyster Creek Mushroom in Damariscotta. Along with cultivating mushrooms, the company buys wild varieties from as many as 100 foragers and sells to health food stores, markets and restaurants.
Although the proposed law could encourage foragers to sell to Heydon rather than get their own training and certification, he called the bill an overreaction, especially in a state with such a small industry.
“It looks like we’d probably be the heaviest-regulated state. I just don’t understand it,” he said. “I just think that we as a state have too many other things we have to worry about other than a handful of people selling a handful of mushrooms.”
Sam Hayward, chef at Fore Street in Portland, said he feared the poisonings in 2008 would lead to an overreaction. But, he said, the proposal appears to be reasonable.
“It’s the responsible thing that we be educated,” he said. “I’m going to reserve judgment until I have a chance to really read the regulations and rules.”
Hayward, who has picked his own wild mushrooms and cooked with them for decades, said he buys only from the most reliable pickers. Knowing how to tell good and bad mushrooms apart has been valuable.
The same summer that two other Portland chefs ate bad mushrooms, a different forager Hayward did not know dropped off some wild mushrooms at Fore Street for Hayward to use.
When he saw the mushrooms, he immediately recognized them as a poisonous variety and told the forager to come back and take them away, he said.
“They could have made someone ill.”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]