May 12, 2011

Bill targets safety of mushrooms

Fungi-related illnesses suffered by two chefs spur a proposal to require some handlers of the delicacies to be certified.

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

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The chanterelle, above, is the most commonly eaten wild mushroom in Maine.

Greg Marley/Mushrooms for Health

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This is the toxic jack-o'-lantern mushroom. It is sometimes mistaken for the popular and edible chanterelle.

Greg Marley/Mushrooms for Health

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:


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