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Caution advised when foraging for morel mushrooms

Posted at 10:44 AM, May 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-08 21:07:00-04

HELENA — The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services is urging people to use caution when foraging and consuming morel mushrooms.

Spring is a popular time to search for the wild mushrooms, which many consider a delicacy.

However, improper identification, handling, and preparation can lead to severe illness and even death.

On its website, DPHHS provides the following information:

In the spring of 2023, a foodborne outbreak occurred in Montana after a Bozeman restaurant served raw and undercooked morels. A total of 51 people with gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms were reported as part of this outbreak, including three hospitalizations and two deaths. Individuals became ill quickly after consumption, typically within one hour after the restaurant meal. An investigation into this outbreak found that consumption of morels at the restaurant was strongly associated with GI illness. Consumption of raw morels was more strongly associated with illness than was consumption of partially cooked morels, although even partially cooked morels were associated with illness.

The mushrooms served as part of this outbreak were confirmed through testing to be Morchella sextelata, a species of true morel. Despite additional laboratory testing, the presence of a specific toxin was not confirmed in the morel sample. The toxins in morel mushrooms are not well characterized, and further research needs to be done to better understand morel toxicity.

Outbreaks and illness linked to consumption of morels seem to occur infrequently, but may occur more often than public health professionals or medical providers currently realize because symptoms may not be severe enough to cause individuals to seek care or the illness may not be known to be associated with morel consumption. The 2023 Montana outbreak is not the first GI outbreak linked to the consumption of morels, either prepared raw or cooked to varying degrees.

The agency offers these tips to protect yourself:

  • First, make sure you are consuming true morels - if you are unsure, consult an expert.
  • Choose morels that are dry and firm.
  • Avoid storing morels in plastic bags that can cause the mushrooms to "sweat." Moisture can lead to bacteria growth.
  • Make sure any morels you eat are fully cooked. Cooking the mushrooms likely reduces the level of toxins present.

If you do think you got sick from eating a morel mushroom, consult your healthcare provider.