Do you know how to detect poisonous mushrooms?

“Are you sure you know how to identify poisonous mushrooms?” I asked my neighbour. He assured me he had studied differences in this fungus and had been picking them for years.

But one night I received a call from his wife saying her husband was desperately ill. I found him lying on the bathroom floor, ghostly white, breathing heavily and in agony. I discovered he had been picking mushrooms and they had been a part of his dinner. He was rushed to the emergency and nearly died.

Now a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal says that foraging and eating wild mushrooms can result in liver failure and even death. And that mistaking toxic mushrooms for edible varieties is a common error.

Dr. Adina Weinerman at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, Toronto says, “Distinguishing safe from harmful mushrooms is a challenge even for mycologists.”

She cites the case of a 52-year-old immigrant woman of Asian descent who had foraged for mushrooms with her husband in a local park. She had had foraging experience in her native land. But like my friend, after eating them she developed severe abdominal pain and gastrointestinal distress. She eventually needed a liver transplant.

Dr. Adina states that people poisoned by toxic mushrooms go through three stages. Within six to 12 hours there is pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

But this is followed by a false recovery in which patients appear to improve. This misleads doctors to assume all is well, and they may be prematurely discharged from hospital or the emergency department.

The final stage occurs 48 hours after ingesting toxic mushrooms. The patient’s liver starts to fail following which other organs may falter and death may occur. The big problem is that doctors do not have an antidote for mushroom toxicity.

It appears that whether you live or die depends on whether you’re fortunate enough to have ‘the luck of the Irish.’

Charcoal can be used to absorb the toxin if used early, but by the time patients are seen in emergency it’s usually too late to be helpful.

The message is crystal clear. Mushrooms of the Amanita genus include over 600 types which cause most of the mushroom deaths. So if mycologists can be fooled identifying toxic mushrooms so can you. It can also fool immigrants who may mistake local poisonous mushrooms for familiar ones from their native land.

But it’s not only toxic mushrooms that can result in trouble according to a report in the Nutrition Action Health Letter.

A doctor at Kingston General hospital in Ontario noticed that an increased number of people were arriving at the hospital complaining of stomach cramps and diarrhea. He ordered stool cultures on these patients and all suffered from salmonella enteritidis infection.

One patient said, “After they did stool and blood samples on me a doctor asked if I had eaten at a certain restaurant.” As the investigation continued it was discovered that all patients had eaten a meal containing bean sprouts. And some people had taken home left-overs in a doggy bag.

The culprit was a food company in Toronto that was distributing contaminated sprouts to food stores and restaurants in Kingston. By the time health officials had controlled the outbreak 550 people in Ontario had become sick from bean sprouts.

Raw sprouts have been linked to 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness in North America. Sprouts are particularly dangerous as E coli bacteria can lodge in tiny cracks in seeds where they’re difficult to kill or remove. And when the seeds are sprouted they provide the ideal breeding ground for bacteria.

Some experts claim that sprouts are impossible to wash thoroughly and say that seniors, children and those with a weak immune system should not eat them.

Luckily for me I do not like bean sprouts. But if I did I’d take the expert advice and make sure they had been refrigerated, were crisp-looking, did not appear dark, and were free of a musty smell. If eating out and you’re not sure they’ve been thoroughly cooked, leave them on the plate.

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