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New report sheds light on deaths from morel mushrooms

Morel mushrooms, known for their smooth, buttery flavor caused an outbreak of illness in Montana at a sushi restaurant.
New report sheds light on deaths from morel mushrooms
Posted at 6:06 PM, Jul 21, 2023

People who forage for morel mushrooms will tell you it's more like a treasure hunt.

"They're a delicacy. And I think part of the excitement of them is that they're not as easily cultivatable," said Heather Hallen-Adams, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who also serves as the toxicology chair for the North American Mycological Association.

The mushrooms are known for their smooth, buttery flavor and can set you back up to $50 a pound.

"You see that big morel or big patch of morels, you know, it takes your breath away a little bit," one morel hunter said.

But this year, morel consumers are feeling a different kind of alarm after an outbreak of illness connected to the delicacies at a Bozeman, Montana, sushi restaurant killed two people.

"We are all so beside ourselves to think that people could have gotten sick and died as a result of what they ate at Dave's Sushi, regardless and no matter the circumstances," said Noah Corwin, operating manager at Dave's Sushi in Bozeman.

The FDA and CDC helped with the local county and state health departments' investigation. It found 51 people became sick after eating cultivated morel mushrooms at the restaurant in March and April of this year, with three hospitalized and two people ultimately dying.

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A newly released report says six restaurants in other states served morels from the same importer without reports of anyone getting sick. What stands out is the Montana restaurant is the only one that served the mushrooms raw or lightly cooked.

"We've known for a long time that morels need to be cooked in order to be safe, and cooked thoroughly," Hallen-Adams said.

Hallen-Adams was at first surprised the Montana outbreak was blamed on morels, thinking it sounded more in line with something else.

"The kind of new and different thing about this case is the severity of the symptoms and the quickness," Hallen-Adams said. "It sounds like several of these people had severe gastrointestinal symptoms within 20 to 30 minutes of ingestion. That has not been documented before."

The FDA says morels are generally considered safe to eat, but may contain toxins that can cause health problems. The report says the specific toxin in the Dave's Sushi morels is still unknown.

"Mushrooms make their living by secreting digestive enzymes, breaking down a substrate and absorbing it," Hallen-Adams said. "And you definitely don't want your mushroom to be trying to digest you while you're trying to digest it."

That's why the FDA's report says anyone eating, selling or serving morels or other wild mushrooms should use caution and keep them refrigerated. It updated its website to say consumers should eat morels at their own risk, adding there's no guarantee of safety even when cooked.

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