Mushroom Scare

By ACSH Staff — Jun 10, 2005
"I confess, that nothing frightens me more than the appearance of mushrooms on the table." --Alexandre Dumas

"I confess, that nothing frightens me more than the appearance of mushrooms on the table."

--Alexandre Dumas

After a frightening rash in early 2005, wild mushroom enthusiasts are on a nervous alert for a crippling new epidemic. This year's morel season is now wrapping up without incident and health officials insist there's nothing to worry about, but a spokesman for the Los Angeles Mycological Society says what happened a few months ago is a sign that a virulent breed of mycophobia, pathological irrational fear of mushrooms, lurks just beneath the surface in local food and health policy and could erupt anew at any time. Worse, this particular phobia strain is a nasty hybrid, crossed with an intransigent distrust of a successful market-based quality-control system.

The outbreak of this disorder hit in Los Angeles County in March. For fear customers might be getting deadly toadstools instead of mushrooms (although there were no reports that anyone had), the county's Department of Health banned the sale of wild mushrooms at the county's seventy-two farmers' markets. Well, it wasn t exactly a ban. Rather, the county started enforcing a requirement in the California Uniform Retail Food Law that any wild mushrooms sold at the markets come only from officially approved, sanctioned, certified sources.

In the world of wild mushrooms, such sources number zero.

Annoyed Fungus Fans

"I thought 'here it comes again,'" groans Dick Smith of the Los Angeles Mycological Society. "It's like bureaucrats deciding, 'Hey you don't have a license to go pick blackberries, so let's regulate it.'"

"They must have thought the concept of 'wild' mushrooms was some kind of marketing gimmick, that the word 'wild' was just a fancy label," says the Society's field trip chairman Stephen Pencall. "They're just astounded to find out, 'What? Somebody went out into the forest? And picked them off of the ground?'"

That is, of course, precisely where wild mushrooms come from, courtesy of a cast of sometimes colorful, self-taught pros like fulltime freelance fungus forager "Hippie Mark." The Los Angeles Times recently chronicled Hippie Mark's mushroom collecting adventures. It is the task of people like him not just to collect the mushrooms but also to make sure he's not collecting any poisonous cases of mistaken identity, like the abundant and toxic amanita phalloides, "death caps," which bear a superficial resemblance to the tasty volvariella. But while Hippie Mark may have a permit to collect mushrooms in state and national forests, he has no governmental certification of his skills. Those are established strictly by the market.

Such a free market approach is apparently a problem for Los Angeles County s Health Department. "There has to be some oversight, from the boat to the plate, or from the farm to the plate," says the county's Environmental Ombudsman Terrance Powell.

Health Department to the "Rescue"

Thus did the health department intervene in the wild mushroom trade. The brouhaha lasted only as long as it took mushroom retailers to change acquisition channels and start buying wild mushrooms from licensed wholesale distributors.

And the distributors, in turn, get them from...yes...exactly where they came from before, the same informal colonies of itinerant foragers.

The difference now is that sellers end up paying about 20% more for mushrooms and the merchandise is typically about four days less fresh when it comes to market, according to retailers.

Fungus fans say the escapade was an exercise in an overreaching public health bureaucracy reflexively tampering with a business it doesn't understand. "People in the industry are acutely aware of the threat," Stephen Pencall proclaims. "And they've been self-regulating successfully since the wild mushroom boom started more than twenty years ago."

"What 'self-regulating' means to me is that there are standards present," counters Powell. "And I don't see any standards."

But what Powell doesn't see is any government standards.

History is full of examples where government became involved in an industry after that industry failed to protect public welfare and a crisis ensued. But in the case of the wild mushroom trade, mushroom aficionados see government moving in where there has been no crisis -- moving in where, in fact, the preexisting free-market regulating mechanism has achieved a safety record of close to 100%.

"To the naysayers," Powell says, I'm saying look at the statistics nationally and locally on people getting sick from mushrooms. So it's not without consequences."

Stats Show No Danger from Normal Sales

Mushroom devotees respond: yes, by all means do look at the statistics. The California Poison Control System reports statewide there are almost a thousand mushroom poisonings a year. The vast majority of the reported incidents are those involving very young children who eat mushrooms while playing outside. Others are cases of amateur would-be gourmets who mistakenly pick non-edible varieties for cooking and make themselves or their families sick. Some of them are immigrants using recognition standards that only apply in their homelands. In a few instances, some more counterculturally-inclined foragers gather what they hope to be psychedelic shrooms and end up on a bad trip.

Conspicuously absent from the list are any scenarios in which someone actually bought mushrooms and got sick from them.

Stuart Heard, the Executive Director of the California Poison Control System, acknowledges his numbers are incomplete. But out of a thousand-odd mushroom poisonings a year, neither he nor any of his researchers is aware of so much as a single instance of anyone being poisoned by mushrooms that came from a grocery store, restaurant, or farmers' market. "For all we know," he says, "there have been no cases of anyone being poisoned by commercially purchased mushrooms."

In Oregon and Washington, where the wetter climate has sustained much larger crops and a more established, also informal, wild mushroom culture, the North American Mycological Association also reports the only significant threat in recent memory has been the danger in the 1980s (since resolved) of getting shot by territorial competing mushroom foragers, certainly not any case of misidentification that reached consumers from the wild mushroom trade.

And nationally?

Again there are no comprehensive figures, but neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come up with any statistically significant number of cases of commercially bought mushrooms making people sick. Neither will say it never happens, but the reality appears pretty close to never.

"That's one of the things that really annoy me," Pencall fumes. "The regulators are focused exclusively on a scenario that is extremely unlikely and ignoring the real problem, which is ill-informed individuals picking mushrooms for their own use and poisoning themselves and members of their own families."

Pencall blames what he says is a longtime culture of pathological mushroom aversion -- mycophobia -- within the regulatory community. "They have an attitude that regards wild mushroom consumption as dangerous, inherently dangerous, not just dangerous if undertaken cavalierly, but dangerous under all circumstances. A lot of health regulators have in mind that all mushrooms are inherently difficult to identify, therefore dangerous."

The FDA's Bad Bug Book handbook certainly takes a dark view, intoning, "for individuals who are not experts in mushroom identification there are generally no easily recognizable differences between poisonous and nonpoisonous species." It is the FDA's most recent (2001) U.S. Public Health Service Food Code that has inspired local governments like L.A. County's to try to bureaucratize wild mushroom sales.

Not All Inspectors Look Alike

The regulators' latest rush to regulate may betray a basic misunderstanding of, not so much mushrooms, but of the natural private-sector market forces of a highly selective boutique industry. Unlike the battalions of very-official inspectors on government or corporate salaries who pore over America's meats or produce, every person at every link in the chain of the tiny wild mushroom industry has a very personal stake in ensuring that what gets through is safe and good enough to eat.

Or else.

"Several people actually see and put their hands on these mushrooms and examine them," Pencall points out. "That has a filter or iterative filter effect that weeds out not only the misidentified mushrooms, but the mushrooms that are worm-infested as to be unfit for consumption. It's a really expensive product and people don't want to buy low-quality wild mushrooms."

Nobody in the supply chain has the option of abdicating responsibility to someone else. The forager knows that if he turns in a load that's contaminated with just a few death caps, his whole day's work could be thrown out and his future credibility with buyers jeopardized. Same with the buyer and the vendor. And just imagine what would happen to the career of a gourmet chef who poisoned his customers with inedible mushrooms.

Powell says he's learned to expect criticism of his regulatory efforts, though. "It's a very lonely place when you're proactive. Wild mushrooms don't have to be monitored any more than a carrot, but not any less."

But wild mushrooms are already monitored. Carrots don't come to market in such minuscule quantities or sell for such colossal prices. Farmer McGregor's entire carrot patch may be USDA-approved and his shipments inspected, but there isn't someone poring over every single carrot from the farm to the stew pot. At about a dollar a pound, carrots are not worth the trouble. The economics are very different for products like morels, which can retail for upwards of $30 a pound. Each one is a precious luxury item worth intense scrutiny.

Fungus Favoritism?

Powell dismisses any notion of fungus prejudice. "Mycophobia? No. I love mushrooms -- the cultivated ones."

But for wild mushrooms, he holds out the threat of still more governmental tampering to fix a system that's not broken to begin with. "What I'm hopeful of is that this will stimulate a review by the state and that they will come up with a system that will provide the oversight that will be reasonable and effective."

Bitter experience has demonstrated that the government's involvement in this particular field has been neither reasonable nor effective.

More than a decade ago in northern California, Alameda County was the center of an effort by several agencies to set up a wild mushroom regulation mechanism, despite the fact that the area's ad hoc private system was working just fine. Unsurprisingly, the effort proved expensive, cumbersome, and unworkable. It collapsed, providing a stark lesson.

"That fiasco may have immunized the San Francisco area from such stupid ideas," says Pencall. "But eventually, knowledgeable regulators retire, and those who don't remember move in. Other areas are ripe because there haven't been proposals there before and regulators have suddenly awakened to the fact that there are wild mushrooms sales going on. 'Oh my god, they're all around. Someone could get poisoned and then the world will end.'"

Charles Molineaux is a freelance journalist who reports on activism, technology and financial issues.