What you need to know before foraging for wild mushrooms

What you need to know before foraging for wild mushrooms

Key PointsThree people have died of suspected mushroom poisoning in Victoria.Experts warn that foraging for wild mushrooms can be highly dangerous.Call the poison centre at the first sign of suspected poisoning symptoms.

Experts are warning of the many risks involved in foraging for wild mushrooms, after three people died of suspected mushroom poisoning in Victoria last week.

The state’s health department says mushroom poisoning is the main cause of death being investigated by police.

Victoria Police say the homicide squad has executed a search warrant at a property in Leongatha, and interviewed a 48-year-old woman who was released pending further inquiries.

Mayor of South Gippsland Shire Nathan Hersey says the local council will consider ways they can strengthen efforts to spread awareness around dangerous mushrooms in response to the tragedy.

“We know that there are a number of poisonous mushrooms in the South Gippsland area, and council in the past has put out information sheets on just how dangerous mushrooms are.

It’s not something that has been done for a number of years but I’m sure it will be looked at again by council.”

There are an estimated quarter of a million unique species of mushroom in Australia, which makes identifying poisonous species a matter of highly specialised knowledge.

How to forage for wild mushrooms

Professor Kim Dowling, associate dean of environmental science at RMIT University, says while foraging for mushrooms can be a harmless activity, it can also be highly dangerous without knowledge around distinguishing safe varieties from harmful ones.

“Foraging is largely safe. Go with a group, go with somebody who knows, can teach you to identify, and once you know the safe ones in an area, you’ll be fine from then on.”

She said the problem is going into a new area you haven’t been in before, and confusing similar-looking species.

But Darren Roberts, medical director at the New South Wales Poisons Information Centre, told SBS News the centre recommends people stay away from wild fungi.

“Our recommendation is you should only ever eat mushrooms that have been purchased from a supermarket or a reputable grocer, because there is so much risk with wild mushrooms.”

Roberts said that overall, most mushroom foraging courses are probably low-risk because the people who run the courses have done training and would likely go to forests that are low-risk.

But it can be highly dangerous when people become too confident after doing short mushroom-identifying courses and try to go out on their own.

“It takes a lot longer than a weekend to become an expert on mushrooms,” Roberts said.

“I’m aware of people who have been poisoned because on their way home from a course, they stepped into a different forest and picked a mushroom that looked like one they saw on the course. And then they got sick.”

How to identify poisonous mushrooms

Roberts said one of the issues is that books and apps that have been produced on identifying mushrooms will likely only be accurate when talking about certain regions.

“In summary, there’s nothing in particular that you can see in a mushroom that will tell you that this is clearly safe to eat.”

He said there are some features experts would think signify higher risk of being unsafe mushrooms, but that could just be one example of an unsafe mushroom, and there are many other types of mushrooms that could be unsafe.

“For example, we talk sometimes about how mushrooms with white gills have maybe a higher risk of being toxic. But that doesn’t mean that mushrooms that aren’t white-gilled are non-toxic.”

What to do if you have an adverse reaction to mushrooms

Roberts said in the event that someone decides they’re going to eat a wild mushroom, “the best thing to do would be to take photos of the place where they are picking their mushroom, and then to take pictures of mushrooms above and underneath”.

At the first signs of any symptoms of poisoning, people should call the poison centre, where people can give you advice relating to mushroom exposures.

Some poison centres can connect you to a mycologist, but in most poison cases someone would and should be in hospital, Roberts said.

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