When Foraging Goes Wrong
Pictured Above: Destroying Angel Mushroom
Photo Source: Flickr
Foraging for wild plants has been lauded as a great way to get out into nature and expand your culinary palette. However, foraging can carry a risk to your health, especially if you do not know what to look for, and, in rare cases, it can lead to severe injury and even death. Luckily, scientists have been developing poison tests and have been trying to spread awareness about foraging pitfalls to prevent further sickness.
According to poison control center statistics, over 7,000 people in the United States were sickened due to foraging mishaps in 2016 (Eat the Planet). Luckily, of that amount, only 13 of those mishaps lead to death, and 5668 were reported as minor cases. Minor outcomes entail a day or two worth of nausea and vomiting, but much more serious cases can entail liver and brain damage and can require extreme treatments such as organ transplants.
The biggest offenders in foraging mishaps are mushrooms. A specific group of poisons called amatoxins make up 90% of mushroom-related fatalities (The Counter). Amatoxins are commonly found in mushrooms like the death cap mushroom and the destroying angel mushroom. Death cap mushrooms are commonly mistaken for the non-toxic paddy straw mushroom, though the mistake can lead to very different bodily outcomes. In 2019, an individual in Ireland mistakenly ate a destroying angel mushroom, and suffered first liver failure, then multi-organ failure and had to stay in the hospital for three months.
To help combat the risks of foraging, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has developed a test strip to find amatoxins in mushrooms in a matter of minutes to help prevent food poisoning and help physicians and veterinarians diagnose poison cases quicker. Also, if one still wants to take the chance to forage, take the time to do your research. There are at least 10,000 species of mushrooms in the United States alone (American Mushrooms). Take the time to get to know what your local ecosystem is like, especially understanding what is edible, what isn’t, and what looks like something edible (but really isn’t). This doesn’t just go for mushrooms either; one should also thoroughly research the plants you are looking to forage for. Never eat something you haven’t seen before or are not sure what it is. There are also plenty of articles and research, often local to your own region, that details the most commonly found poisons and edible flora and fauna. While there are great resources and tests out there, keep in mind that in the end, it’s your responsibility to make sure what you’re consuming is safe to eat. There is an inherent risk to foraging for wild plants, and while there are ways to mitigate risk, there is no way to get rid of it completely.
Foraging is an activity done across the world, especially in North America, Europe, and Eastern Asia. While it is a relatively common activity, making a mistake can lead to dire consequences. Even though reported poison cases commonly lead to a few bad days worth of food poisoning (which already isn’t pleasant), poisoning cases due to foraging can lead to permanent liver and brain damage, even death. While researchers are making progress on ways to test mushrooms on whether they are poisonous or not, it is absolutely important to make sure you know exactly what you are consuming. Even if it a mushroom or plant looks harmless, it can be a look-alike for something much more dangerous. While foraging is popular, be sure to stay safe and stay informed.