This blog post, we’re talking about mushrooms and other foraged edibles! It’s growing season again, and people in Pittsburgh have taken to Schenley, Racoon Creek, and North Park to look for mushrooms, berries, nuts, and plants. Foraging, searching for wild food sources, has been a staple of humankind, and in recent years it has grown in popularity. Often you’ll see wild foraged foods marketed as exclusive and gourmet.
Foraging for mushrooms is no exception. Mushrooms, also known as fungi, are in an entirely different kingdom than plants and animals. Fungi’s presence on restaurant menus and grocery stores has increased as more people have become intrigued by their idiosyncrasies. Additionally, some mushrooms bare a high price tag, which can spark dollar signs in some people’s eyes. However, before you take to the woods picking every mushroom in site, you should know these fruiting bodies could run a novice forager into a lot more debt than profit.
No matter what is being sold, a person could be liable for the damage that their product causes. So, if you sell jack-o-lantern mushrooms thinking they’re chanterelles and make a bunch of people sick, you would probably be liable to the injured, and perhaps to the restaurant for mislabeling your product.
Nevertheless, the regulations in this area are sparse. For a while, the FDA recommended all people who were selling mushrooms to have each mushroom inspected by an expert who would vouch for their identity, but this changed in 2009. Now, per §3-201.16 of the FDA’s model Food Code, no wild foraged mushrooms are to be sold to restaurants, unless the restaurant has been approved to sell foraged fungi. This is the law in Pennsylvania and almost every state, because most states have adopted the model Food Code. Most Pennsylvania specific regulations on mushrooms were reserved, or never adopted [proposed, but never adopted]. Nevertheless, the PA Department of Agriculture has published a document to help guide foragers in the best practices.
Additionally, almost every park has different regulations that dictate what a person can take from the forest. This often prohibits the taking of stones, dirt, and plants, but usually mushrooms get left out of the list. For example, in Pittsburgh City Parks’ , and Allegheny County Parks’ regulations, mushrooms are not mentioned, and Pennsylvania State Parks allow for the gathering of fungi. However, before you start foraging any park, you should research the rules for that particular area. Some protected areas completely forbid the gathering of anything- which would include fungi.
Furthermore, while gathering mushrooms may typically be allowed in parks, the rules around commercially selling the mushrooms are entirely different. Most public areas prohibit the sale of anything foraged there, because gathering is to be confined to personal use. Therefore, foraging mushrooms can be used for a wild weekday dinner, but taking those mushrooms to a grocery store or restaurant may be prohibited. The best practice might just be to preserve them for later person use or gifts to friends.
Another thing to ponder as foraging grows in popularity is that foraged wild plants are not regulated much either. This can be seen as a good thing. Wild food is becoming more mainstream and ingredients such as sunchokes, chicory, ramps, and clovers are nutritious and delicious. But just like with mushrooms, confusing false hellebore for ramps can land someone in the hospital, and when these products are being sold the monetary damage can be extreme, for a small profit.
So in conclusion if you are planning on selling any wild food during this growing season, take the time to carefully identify it and verify it through field guides, websites, and experts. Typically, only experienced foragers should sell these products, because nature is full of similar looking plants and fungi. And remember, make sure to check local regulations on where you can forage, and restrictions on use of foraged mushrooms and plants.
Happy foraging my friends.