The mushroom season should be in full swing. Despite some reports that the wet summer and some early autumn frosts have reduced the abundance of fungi, many edible varieties have found conditions ideal, especially with warm September days, alternating sunshine and showers – the perfect conditions to tempt out mushrooms – and mushroom hunters.
But after several high-profile poisonings in recent years, especially the case of writer Nicholas Evans and his family who nearly died after mistaking an edible variety for one that can be a killer, people are rightly wary. The best advice now seems to be not to rely on guidebooks – though many excellent ones are available – but to go out with an accredited guide who can show you what to pick – and what to leave well alone. The advice is timely.
Poisons experts this week issued a warning about wild mushroom foraging, urging collectors to take extra care when foraging because of the risk of picking toxic varieties.
The Health Protection Agency's poisons experts warned that dozens of people seek medical advice each year after eating toxic varieties of wild mushroom which they have picked themselves.
Some varieties which grow wild in the United Kingdom are so poisonous that they can be fatal if eaten. Foragers should remember that the poisons in some of the most dangerous wild mushrooms are generally not destroyed by cooking.
Between January and the end of July this year, the Health Protection Agency commissioned National Poisons Information Service was consulted for advice on 100 cases. The NPIS is contacted by frontline medics who need expert assistance when dealing with poisonings.
Dr John Thompson, the director of the NPIS unit in Cardiff, said: "The wild mushroom foraging season is under way which is why we need people to be aware of the potential dangers involved in this activity.
"While many mushrooms growing in the wild are tasty and safe to eat, it is not always easy to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species – even for people with experience in foraging.
"The NPIS therefore advises that people should not eat mushrooms collected in the wild unless they are familiar with the various species that grow in the UK and are sure that the mushrooms they have collected are safe to eat."
In 2011 the NPIS saw 257 cases of poisoning linked to eating mushrooms. The numbers were slightly down on the 316 cases seen in 2010 when weather in late summer and early autumn led to a bumper crop of wild mushrooms.
Most cases of accidental eating of mushrooms are seen in children under ten and they do not usually result in severe symptoms. Inquiries about adults often occur after deliberate ingestion of mushrooms collected in the wild.
Dr John Cooper, director of the HPA's centre for radiation, chemicals and environmental hazards, which commissions NPIS, said: "People heading out to gather wild food should be aware of the dangers. Correctly identifying the mushrooms that are safe to pick and eat is key in ensuring that foraging does not become a danger to your health."
Some useful guidance on wild food foraging can be found on the Food Standard Agency's website www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2004/sep/forage