Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Forager Rick Tibbetts, right, sells wild matsutake mushrooms to Joe Fournier of Rosemont Market, who is holding cultivated mushrooms. Fournier, a supporter of accountable foraging, only buys from insured suppliers.

 

December 17, 2012

Safety of wild mushrooms put off as law gets moldy

Standards for foragers, enacted in April, have yet to be implemented as parties debate training and fees.

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

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. 

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Mushroom laws

Should Maine implement a law requiring certification of wild-mushroom foragers who sell to restaurants?

Yes

No

View Results