Regulating the wild mushroom L.A. County halts sales at farmers markets.

Could restaurants and supermarkets be next?
By Corie Brown
Times Staff Writer

March 16, 2005

Although they are known to be elusive, it was a surprise when wild mushrooms recently disappeared from farmers markets throughout Los Angeles County.

On Feb. 2, the vendor at the Santa Monica and Hollywood markets, David West, was shut down by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. Two weeks later, two other vendors — the Mushroom Man, operated by Nathaniel Pincus-Roth and Stephen Haskell, and Tradewind Mushroom, operated by Nathan Peitso — were told by the county to halt all wild mushroom sales.

No reports of anyone getting sick from mushrooms preceded the county's action. In fact, there has never been a report from any state or local health organization of anyone in the United States becoming ill from wild mushrooms purchased in a store or farmers market or eaten in a restaurant.

So why the sudden shutdown? Why just at farmers markets? And is a ban at restaurants and supermarkets to follow?

Terrance Powell, the environmental ombudsman with the county health department, says he only recently learned, through his inspectors at the farmers markets, that wild mushrooms, indeed, do grow wild. By definition, they are foraged from forest floors, not cultivated on farms.

There is a dangerous gap in the regulations, Powell says, and that worries him. "Should we wait to have people get sick? Our job is to be proactive…. Consumers rely on food being safe."

In an age when knowing the provenance of ingredients has become chic, you may be wondering where wild mushrooms actually come from. Chances are, whether you buy them at Whole Foods to sauté at home or order the salmon with polenta and wild mushrooms at Patina, the wild fungi available in Los Angeles were foraged by someone like Hippie Mark.

Hippie Mark (who says he doesn't believe in last names) is a circuit picker, foraging for wild mushrooms throughout the Pacific Coast region starting in Northern California, up into British Columbia and over into Idaho and Montana. He's on the road 11 months of the year. This week is the end of black trumpets season in Mendocino, so he's parked his trailer in Fort Bragg to work Jackson State Forest.

Picking eight or more hours a day, the forager harvests 30 to 50 pounds of mushrooms in a day. A novice might not find half that many mushrooms. But Hippie Mark follows the trees, seeking out dense forests of redwoods mixed with oaks. Half an hour into the forest, he finds clumps of black trumpet mushrooms up and down the hillsides.

At the end of the day, Hippie Mark heads straight to one of the three mushroom buyers who have set up tents in Fort Bragg. They all seem to pay the same market rate, $2 a pound, although they buy for different wild mushroom distributors. "It's not much to some people, but it's a lot to me," he says.

When he weighs in, there is nothing but black trumpets, even though he's also walked by delicate coral mushrooms. The buyers are only interested in "blacks" right now, he says.

A choosy market

Only a handful of mushrooms have commercial potential, says Mike Stephens, a buyer for several wild mushroom distributors, including Alpine Foragers Exchange in Portland, Ore., and David West in Los Angeles. A picker before he became a buyer, Stephens has been working the circuit for 30 years.

Every once in a while, a novice picker will come in with a bag full of all kinds of mushrooms. "I won't touch it," Stephens says. There are plenty of experienced pickers bringing in exactly what he needs. In California, Stephens is not required to ask foragers to show him their $50 permits.

When the morels start popping next month, Stephens will head to his home territory in Oregon, where he'll pick for himself at $6 to $8 a pound. There, buyers are required to check permits, but it's a silly rule, Stephens says. Who knows whether they're even valid, he says.

How does Stephens know his pickers aren't foraging on toxic waste dumps or around nasty sludge ponds? A quizzical look crosses his face. "Wild mushrooms won't grow where anything's wrong," he says. "After a fire, you can tell where they've dropped fire retardant because there are no mushrooms there."

What about poisonous mushrooms? Well, it's a concern during matsutake season, Stephens says. White death caps look like "matsies," as they're called. But in a basket of mushrooms, the death caps are easy to spot. And Stephens says he personally inspects everything.

Alpine has 10 buyers just like Stephens working the western mushroom fields. "We go through the mushrooms again here," says Sue Bartling, Alpine's office manager. Sorted and repackaged into boxes labeled simply mushrooms if they are labeled at all, Alpine ships 1,000 pounds to 5,000 pounds of wild mushrooms around the world every day, she says. "Mushrooms aren't branded."

In Los Angeles, Alpine is one of several wild mushroom suppliers to Davalan, a produce wholesaler, at the downtown produce terminal. Doug Strenger, Davalan's head of specialty vegetables, says he had never heard of anyone worrying about wild mushroom safety before the county health department recently started poking around.

But that's precisely the problem, according to Powell. Foragers such as Hippie Mark have had no formal training in identifying mushrooms. And no one is tracking the mushrooms from the field to the table.

Concerned for public health, Powell first shut down the wild mushroom vendors he knew about at the farmers markets. This week, he's getting around to the rest of the county. Stepping in where no California regulator has gone before, Powell plans to issue new product identification and source disclosure regulations governing the sale of wild mushrooms across Los Angeles, including distributors, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants.

If Powell has his way, before consumers take their first bites of this spring's fresh morels, they will know exactly where each wild mushroom grew, who identified it as a morel, and that person's qualification for the job of mushroom identifier. A "buyer beware" notice will be posted at points of sale to warn consumers that the mushroom grew on land that is not regulated by the Department of Agriculture or Health Services "and therefore was subject to conditions that may potentially contaminate, adulterate, or otherwise render the product unfit for human consumption." As a bonus bit: Consumers will be told that the Latin binomial name for morel is morchella esculenta.

True, the health risk is strictly theoretical, Powell says, but throughout the years, several amateur wild mushrooms foragers have gotten sick and some have died. Powell believes it is just a matter of time before a commercial forager makes the amateur's mistake. He's acting now, he says, to forestall disaster.

If they abide by the new rules, the farmers market vendors may resume sales immediately, Powell says, which would be good news for consumers. When chanterelles were at their peak this winter, they were available at the farmers market for $12 a pound, while they cost $25 at Whole Foods Markets. Hedgehog mushrooms, a less-revered relative of the chanterelle, were priced at $36 a pound at the Beverly Hills Bristol Farms Market.

The sweeping new requirements are a bombshell in a heretofore unregulated world. And Powell is asking for a lot. Until vendors figure out how to respond — tracking each foraged mushroom's provenance will be no easy task — the delicacy may be impossible to find.

The problem is that no one knows the answers to Powell's questions. Although Washington state has minimal reporting requirements intended to keep track of the volume of mushrooms harvested, California has no special regulations concerning wild mushroom harvesting, distribution or sales. "It's not easy being first, but I feel extremely justified in looking at this," Powell says.

The urge to regulate happens frequently when officials first discover the peculiarities of wild mushrooms, says Dave Bengston, Mendocino County agriculture commissioner. And just as predictably as they try to regulate them, he says, they drop the idea. "In my mind, mushrooms are like any other fruit or vegetable, common things we eat all the time that, treated improperly, are poisonous," Bengston says. "Fix rhubarb wrong, it's the same thing. And you don't see a lot of people panicking over rhubarb."

And what about death caps? "I'm not worried about them. They are very different mushrooms from matsutakes," he says.

Mendocino County hasn't regulated its foragers, Bengston says. With the slump in the local lumber industry, mushroom foraging saved Christmas for more than a few families. "We've had discussions, but we felt that no one has the time to do it," he says.

As for Los Angeles County, Powell doesn't care what has happened elsewhere; as far as he is concerned, his new interim rules should stand as law until the state decides whether to act.

And what does the state say? "We don't know what the county is doing," says Robert Miller, spokesman for the California Department of Health Services. To date, Powell has not notified the state of his new regulations.

According to Miller, the state would like to see a requirement that foragers go through a training and licensing program. But because wild mushroom commerce crosses state lines, he says, "we're waiting for the federal government to act."

Meanwhile, as gourmands eagerly await the arrival of morel season, tracking down wild mushrooms in Los Angeles is likely to be a mind bender.