Urban Foraging Is Trendy, But That Doesn't Make It Harmless

Groups and classes devoted to urban foraging have been cropping up from San Francisco and Seattle to NYC and Capitol Hill. A quick Google search for "urban foraging" will yield a bevy of recent reports on the trend, which make it sound fun and hip and quaint, like baking vegan cupcakes, canning peaches or keeping chickens. But if you don't know what you're doing, foraging for wild foods can be dangerous or even deadly. And a group of experts from Rutgers University Medical School say "serious illnesses" from poisonous foraged mushrooms are on the rise.

Urban dictionary defines "urban foraging" as sorting through the dumpsters, garbage bins and other waste containers for edibles. But this is a practice more commonly known as "dumpster diving" or (for the slightly more pretentious) "freeganism", while urban foraging is generally used to describe hunting for nature's bounty — berries, mushrooms, wild weeds — within city limits.

Mushrooms are a foraging favorite, but these can be especially touchy. There are more than 5,000 mushroom species growing in the United States. Around 100 varieties are poisonous, with a dozen of these classified as lethal. Many harmless mushroom types also have poisonous look-alikes.

Bruce Ruck, director of drug information and education at the Rutgers-based New Jersey Poison Control center, notes that the growing mainstream popularity of mushroom foraging is troubling because most people can't differentiate between safe and unsafe mushrooms. "Eating even a few bites of certain mushrooms can cause severe illness," Ruck said. "Unless you are a mycologist, it is difficult to tell the difference between a toxic and non-toxic mushroom."

According to Ruck and colleagues, U.S. poison control centers receive about 6,000 calls annually from people who've eaten poisonous foraged mushrooms. About 2,500 of these cases require medical attention, and about 500 result in severe illness. This month, a 4-year-old girl in Poland was comatized after being poisoned by wild mushrooms. There have also been several recent cases of fatal wild mushroom poisoning, including a New Jersey mother who picked and served her family lethal Amanita shrooms (the other family members were sickened but survived).

Symptoms of mushroom poisoning may first appear in as little as 20 minutes or may not appear for 12 hours. Stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea are common symptoms. Some unsuspecting shrooms may have psychoactive (aka trippy) properties. Liver and kidney damage, coma and death are all possible.

“There is a saying, ‘There are old mushroom pickers and bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old, bold mushroom pickers,’” Ruck said. The best policy with foraged mushrooms is "if in doubt, throw it out."

Still interested in foraging for mushrooms? Fortunately, the growing popularity of urban foraging has made it easier than ever to find foraging classes and guided foraging tours in cities across the country. Checkout meetup.com for a list of foraging groups nationwide. There are also apps that can help you identify forageable foods and quite a few new books devoted to finding and identifying wild food in the city.

Photo via First Ways: An Urban Foraging Blog on Facebook