Last April, Maine lawmakers passed a wild mushroom foraging law in an effort to rein in the unregulated practice and keep poisonous mushrooms off the market. It was the most extensive law of its kind in the nation, and required foragers to complete a training course before being allowed to sell their products to restaurants and retailers.Â
But eight months later, the law still has not been implemented. The program to certify wild mushroom foragers and brokers has not been put in place. An advisory board established by the law has yet to be formed.
Meanwhile, wild mushrooms are still being peddled to restaurants and retailers — unchecked and unsupervised.
“I’ve had guys come in at 10 in the morning with beer on their breath (trying to sell wild mushrooms),” said Rob Evans, the James Beard award-winning chef who owns Duckfat in Portland. “I think that’s the scary side that the state’s trying to deal with.”
But the problem, some say, is that the state isn’t dealing with it.
The law charges the Department of Health and Human Services with setting up a training and exam program to certify wild mushroom foragers and brokers who sell to restaurants and retailers.
But Gov. Paul LePage hasn’t appointed the advisory committee required to create the certification program. And those familiar with the law question whether it’s possible to operate a certification program at all after LePage threatened to veto the law unless the certification fee was lowered from $200 to $20, which it eventually was.
“We can’t put the course on,” said Richard Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, who served on the task force that drafted the original bill. “We have a program in search of funding.”
As the months tick by since the legislation was passed, suspect mushrooms continue to be shopped around to restaurants and retailers, and the burden remains on chefs and buyers to weed out any misidentified and poisonous varieties.
‘WILD, WILD WEST’ SITUATION
Estimates presented to lawmakers during the debate over the bill put the number of commercial foragers at 200. However, due to the unregulated nature of the industry and the “here today, gone tomorrow” ways of many amateur foragers, no one can say with certainty how many operate in Maine.
Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer
Chef David Ross of 50 Local examines a chanterelle picked in the woods of Kennebunk last year. Ross says too many rules may hurt suppliers.
Chefs including Andrew Taylor, who co-owns Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, describe the current situation with mushroom foragers as the “wild, wild west.”
Taylor said he’s had foragers try to sell him misidentified mushrooms, but he never buys them because he has a working knowledge of wild mushrooms and only buys from two reliable sources.
He recalls a particular batch of misidentified mushrooms that a forager tried to sell to him as porcinis. He later learned that they were sold to another restaurant.
“They weren’t poisonous,” Taylor said. “Just inedible.”
But some chefs aren’t as knowledgeable as Taylor.
In 2008, two Portland chefs purchased what they thought were porcinis, an edible mushroom, from a forager. They were actually poisonous lilac brown boletes.
The boletes were never served to the public, but the chefs consumed them and were hospitalized. The incident led to the creation of the current law.
Adding to the law’s troubles, one prominent forager feels it doesn’t do enough to protect public health and is circulating a petition seeking support to strengthen it.
So far, forager Rick Tibbetts, who owns the Scarborough-based Tibbetts Mushroom Co. and sells to many of the best-known restaurants in greater Portland, has gathered more than 100 signatures from chefs and food buyers.
He wants the law amended to promote “accountable foraging” by requiring foragers to carry liability insurance and encouraging sustainable practices to prevent over-harvesting.
Evans, Taylor and other chefs support Tibbetts’ proposal to amend the law.
“If someone went through the process of getting insurance, they’re serious about what they’re doing, so that would make me feel better,” Evans said.
However, the more immediate hurdle for the law is the certification fee that the governor insisted be capped at $20.
It has become standard procedure for LePage to demand lower fees in all bills that reach his desk.
“From the governor’s perspective, putting fees on small business and putting the burden on their backs is not the solution,” said Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman. “The governor has been very clear that we can’t raise taxes and we can’t raise fees.”
Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, who worked to amend the bill after the governor threatened to veto it, advocated for a compromise fee of $75. But LePage was adamant that it be $20.
“I just don’t see that the governor is going to budge on that,” Sirocki said. “I tried. He’s very firm.”
The low fee means the advisory committee — should it ever be seated — will face a difficult task. The 12-member committee is charged with determining the parameters for the training program, including the curriculum, the qualifications for trainers and the exam.
The shape and substance of the training won’t be known until the committee is seated. But those experienced in running training programs say it’s impossible to implement a program with such limited funding.
Grotton said the task force felt it could create a curriculum and hire trainers for $75, but $20 wouldn’t work.
“We’re willing to move forward, but it has to be funded, and we don’t have the funding,” said Grotton, who put forth his name to fill the advisory committee seat designated for the Maine Restaurant Association.
The association regularly hosts the two-day ServSafe Food Handler training, and charges $129 for members and $170 for nonmembers. The fee includes a textbook.
Mushroom educator Greg Marley, author of “Mushrooms for Health” and “Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares,” and a board member of the Maine Mycological Association, agreed that the $20 fee is too low.
“It simply will not function at $20,” said Marley, who sat on the task force that helped draft the law.
Marley said that after the fee was lowered, the task force met one final time. During that meeting, he said, members of the group felt the only way the certification program could move forward would be by requiring those seeking certification to pay the $20 fee to the Department of Health and Human Services, which would then direct applicants to private trainers who would deliver the training for a fee set by each instructor.
Under such a system, those seeking certification could end up paying more than the $200 fee included in the original version of the legislation.
Among the 12 members required to form the committee, eight need to be appointed by the governor and four are state employees, including representatives from DHHS, the Department of Agriculture and the University of Maine. Those who must be appointed include two representatives from the Maine Mycological Association plus a chef, a forager, a wild mushroom broker, a wholesale food distributor, a poison control center representative and a member of the Maine Restaurant Association.
The Maine Mycological Association is still debating whether its members will agree to be part of the committee because of concern over the reduced fee, according to Marley.
The person charged with overseeing the certification program had not heard there was potential reluctance among needed committee members until contacted by a reporter.
“We’re not going to have a committee, if that’s the case,’ said Lisa Roy, program manager for the Health Inspection Program at DHHS. “It is too bad, because we’ve put a lot of hard work into it.”
The task force met for three years before submitting draft legislation.
HIGH PRICE, HIGH RISK
In addition to problems caused by the reduced fee, some chefs feel the law doesn’t have enough teeth to protect public health.
“I don’t buy (mushrooms) from anyone who doesn’t have a substantial insurance policy,” said Joe Fournier, agricultural coordinator for Rosemont Market, who buys wild mushrooms for the company’s four stores. “I’m not going to buy from anyone off the street.”
That doesn’t stop people from trying. Fournier said that “in the spring and fall, there’s anywhere from six to 12 people coming in our back door” trying to sell wild mushrooms.
He supports Tibbetts’ accountable-foraging proposal.
The increasing number of amateur mushroom foragers approaching restaurants and retailers reflects the wholesale price of wild mushrooms and the dining public’s desire for more diverse foods.
Tibbetts, who carries liability insurance, said chicken of the woods mushrooms can sell for up to $12.50 a pound wholesale, while matsutakes can sell for as high as $20 a pound.
“You can make $1,000 a day mushrooming if you’re good at it,” Tibbetts said. “But (amateur foragers) won’t bother to spend $700 to get insurance to protect people.”
Evans, of Duckfat, said the amateur foragers often try to underprice their mushrooms in order to sell them to unsuspecting chefs.
“Ten years ago, Sam Hayward (chef/owner of Fore Street) and myself and a couple other restaurants were the only ones using (wild mushrooms),” Evans said. “Now any restaurant seems to be able to afford them and buy them.”
Tibbetts said if certified foragers aren’t required to carry liability insurance, “the restaurant will take the hit” should someone get poisoned.
But not all chefs are worried about potential liability. Chef David Ross, who owns 50 Local in Kennebunk and often forages for mushrooms himself, doesn’t agree that foragers should be required to carry liability insurance.
“If the insurance becomes too expensive and they can’t service us or sell us mushrooms, that would be unfortunate,” Ross said.
He expressed a similar concern about the cost of the certification fee, but said he feels $75 is reasonable.
Roy, with DHHS, said state law prohibits lawmakers from requiring businesses to carry liability insurance.
However, Doug Dunbar, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, said “(t)here is no law prohibiting a requirement for liability insurance, although occupations generally do not require liability insurance.” He said it is more common for a liability insurance requirement to be written into business contracts.
Still, other chefs want to see foragers held accountable for what they sell.
“If you’re going to make a living off foraging mushrooms, you should carry liability insurance just like restaurants have to if they serve liquor,” said chef Jeff Landry, who owns The Farmer’s Table in Portland and serves on the board of the Maine Restaurant Association.
At the same time, Landry feels the $20 fee is too low and “gives everybody license to head out to the woods and grab whatever they want.”
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: