Yum! Mushrooms. Who doesn’t like them (if cooked properly, even kids will eat them).

The problem? Well, the Epicurious blog has an article on the joys of mushroom picking.

It seems that a lot of yuppies in the Pacific Northwest have decided that the economic downswing is a good reason to take up this hobby.

Professional foragers say the spike is an offshoot of locavorism, bolstered by concerns about the industrial food supply chain and increased interest in nutrition. But unlike canning beans and scrutinizing ingredient lists, mushroom hunting is tremendous fun.

“Especially in the Northwest, where we’re already an outdoorsy crowd, mushrooming is just another way to spend a day in the woods,” says Langdon Cook, the Seattle-based author of Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. “It’s a treasure hunt in the woods.”

Yes, a deadly treasure hunt.

But why worry?

Those encouraging the fad downplay the dangers by pointing out that in Europe hunting the woods for mushrooms is a common pastime,

Of the thousands of mushrooms that grow around the world, MacMillen says, “100 are edible, 10-15 are deadly, and about 100 will give you an illness. The vast, vast, vast majority down the middle are interesting at best.”

Once mushroom hunters learn to identify their prey, the chances of their ingesting dangerous mushrooms are slight, MacMillen says,

And that is the problem.

For what is happening here is that we have a fad. We are talking about folks who think they are backwoods experts but are really the equivalent of weekend warriors, notorious for underestimating the dangers of mother nature.

How dumb are they?

Well, here is one quote:

The first-timers scampered through the woods, flirting with what MacMillen says is the most serious danger associated with foraging: in the throes of “mushroom fever,” hunters can wander miles from a trail, never lifting their eyes from the soil. That’s why MacMillen insists participants in his forays always carry whistles.

So they aren’t even as woods wise as your average boyscout, yet they now think a day’s experience in hunting mushrooms makes them experts.

The problem? There is no simple test to check which mushrooms are okay, which ones have mild problems if eaten, and which are deadly poisonous.

True, the article discusses cultures in Europe and Asia where mushroom hunting is common, but it ignores the fact that these foragers are not yuppies, but poor folks who live on the land in Europe and grow up learning how to forage. Their ancestors have lived through famines, and know how to gather not just mushrooms but other “famine foods” (Yum! Treebark!). Yet even so every year one reads reports of mushroom related deaths.

I learned my lesson when I worked in Africa. When I would eat with the African nurses or at the African convent, sometimes the food would include wild mushrooms as part of the soup/stew. (The main staple was sadza, sort of a thick cornmeal mush that one made into balls and dipped into the soup/stew to flavor it).

Then one day we got two critically ill patients admitted. Their family had eaten locally picked mushrooms, and several members died immediately at home. Alas, both the women died within a few days of hemorrhage and liver failure.

EMedicine describes the various problems in treating patients with mushroom poisoning.

Most cases of mushroom poisoning is only diarrhea/cramps, similar to ordinary food poisoning. But there are other problem that can be fatal. Most of those ingesting the most dangerous mushrooms will die quickly, but in the case of my patients, they lived through the early toxic problems only to die of liver failure, with hemorrhage from all orifices.

Fulminant hepatic failure is a common complication observed with amatoxin and gyromitrin poisoning, and it should be treated aggressively because it commonly follows a fatal course.

The treatment? Liver transplant, something that was unavailable at an isolated rural hospital in Africa 30 years ago…

In the US, where hunting mushrooms is not common, only 44 people were seriously ill between 1976 and 1981 from toxic mushrooms. There is no good data on milder poisonings that don’t get seen in the US or are diagnosed as simple food poisonings.

However a more recent report from a 1997 outbreak reported in the MMWR reports 14 cases and two deaths in California, from the innocent looking Amanita Phalloides, AKA the death cap mushroom.

Photo Wikipedia.

And guess what? According to the MMWR

Since 1979, A. phalloides has been found in the region fromnorthern California to Washington state, and since 1995, it hasappeared in greater numbers because of abundant rainfall duringwinter months. During the winter of 1995-96, at least 13 persons innorthern California were hospitalized for treatment of poisoningsafter eating A. phalloides; one patient died, and another requireda liver transplant. The cluster of mushroom poisoning in northernCalifornia described in this report probably occurred because warm,heavy rainfall created optimal conditions for the growth of A.phalloides in unprecedented numbers. In addition, this mushroomgrew in places where it had not grown before (e.g., backyards),which increased the likelihood that persons gathering thesemushrooms could mistake them for a nonpoisonous species.

The National Library of Medicine includes a lot of reports of mushroom poisonings, mostly from Asia or Europe. Presumably these folks were a lot more experienced in gathering mushrooms than the Washington state Yuppies, so I really worry about these amateurs playing back to nature.

The list of various types of poisonings can be found in the FDA’s Bad Bug Book:

Mushroom Poisoning, Toadstool Poisoning

Types of Poisons.

EMedicine has a list of the problems HERE.
The Missouri Dept of conservation has some information on identification of poisonous mushrooms at it’s site.

The Epicurious blog shows the real danger: Many of the “experts” they quote have their own private mushroom patch, which they know from experience are safe mushrooms.

To keep things safe, they are teaching newcomers to identify and pick only the more easily identifiable Chanterelle mushroom, yet even this species has at least one dangerous look alike, the “Jack O Lantern” mushroom, which can make one quite sick with diarrhea and stomach cramps.

The real danger is if their students get so enthusiastic they will decide to widen their sources of wild mushrooms to other varieties. Presumably we will soon be reading reports like this in your local paper (from WMUR)

Mushroom-Related ER Visits Rise In NH
Health Department Warns Residents To Be Cautious

CONCORD, N.H. — The state Department of Health and Human Services is warning residents to be cautious when eating wild mushrooms after seeing an increase in mushroom-related emergency room visits…

The health department said eight ER visits were attributed to wild mushroom consumption in 2009, and the number increased to 11 in 2010. That number is already at 31 this year, with 18 occurring in September.

or this, in the Washington DC Post:

Two More Ill with Mushroom poisoning

Liver specialists at Georgetown University Hospital said Monday that they are treating two additional cases of mushroom poisoning, bringing to four the number of people who have been stricken ill in recent weeks after eating poisonous fungi

So, unless you grew up living off the land and know where your grandmother’s mushroom patch is located in the woods, I suggest you take up a safer sport, such as skydiving or bungie jumping.

That way only you, and not your entire family, will die if something goes wrong.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

This article is crossposted on her Xanga blog.

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