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Mushrooms, especially wild harvested ones, can be dangerous. Know the risks.


Mushrooms, especially wild harvested ones, can be dangerous. Know the risks.

Apr 24, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Colleen Hunter
Mushrooms, especially wild harvested ones, can be dangerous. Know the risks.
Peter Dayton hiking near Turquoise Lake (Photo by Colleen Hunter).

Who would have ever imagined that Peter would not return from a 9-day canoe trip on the Green River in Utah? 

We drove to Utah on April 10, 2023, and I stayed in Roy to visit a cousin while Peter and a fishing buddy continued to Moab on April 11.  Peter put on the river with a friend, two sisters, and a nephew on April 12.  

That evening, after a good first day on the river, Peter prepared a meal for himself and his friend that included morel mushrooms that he had foraged in June 2022 in the Bitterroot Mountains.  We first began foraging for morels in the spring of 2018, after the 2017 Rice Ridge fire, near Seeley Lake.  Extensive research yielded much information about how to identify the mushrooms and many benefits of consuming them.

Mushrooms, especially wild harvested ones, can be dangerous. Know the risks.
A harvest of morel mushrooms (Photo courtesy of Colleen Hunter).

Peter, an experienced outdoorsman, really enjoyed foraging for morels.  He later learned about foraging for chanterelles and chicken of the woods, and we had always picked huckleberries, elderberries, chokecherries, and service berries for jellies and syrups.

Peter brought a quart-sized ziplock bag of dried morels (dried in our commercial grade dehydrator then put into pint jars in the freezer) and added those to Ben’s Original Ready Rice Mushroom Risotto for dinner. He used a Jet Boil stove to prepare the meal, which may have made simmering difficult, as he slightly scorched the meal.  Both he and his friend consumed the dinner.  The other three people on the trip had their own cooking group.

Within two hours after eating dinner, Peter became dizzy and felt ill, as did his friend a little while later. Both vomited and suffered from gastronomical issues for several hours.  As Peter became more dehydrated, while his friend was starting to feel better, this friend and one of his sisters (both retired medical doctors) started wilderness rehydration with Peter, giving him sips of Gatorade every 10 to 15 minutes until 4 a.m.  At that time, they felt Peter was starting to improve, so they decided to let him sleep for a couple of hours.  When they went to his tent to wake him around 6:30 a.m., they discovered that he had died during those 2 ½ early morning hours on April 13.

Since that day, all of us have done more research on morels, and we also heard the story of the people who ate morels at Dave’s Sushi in Bozeman and were sickened, two fatally, just a few days after Peter died.  My conclusions from our research are as follows:

  • Articles state that a person can build up a sensitivity to morels over time, which can result in a bad reaction at some point, as the toxins can build up in the body over time.
  • Articles also state that all mushrooms have toxins but are considered edible when the toxins can be reduced to safer levels by cooking.
  • Unfortunately, articles on foraging tend to mention the dangers of consuming morels only in passing: Eat in moderation (no definition of moderation) and cook thoroughly (no definitive information on cooking time or recommended internal temperature).

More research needs to be done, and more information needs to be provided so that this type of tragedy does not happen to others.  Peter’s autopsy revealed no underlying conditions.  The official autopsy report gav

Mushrooms, especially wild harvested ones, can be dangerous. Know the risks.
e the cause of death as “acute necrotizing gastritis following ingestion of foraged mushrooms.”  Peter was a robust and healthy 69-year-old who ardently loved the outdoors.

Research shows about a 1% to 2% chance of a fatal reaction to morels among people who consume them.  This is more than the risk of dying from the flu, yet people tend to become complacent about morels.  If you are in the 1% to 2%, it is 100% fatal.

I am working with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, which is working with the FDA and CDC, to get more information to the public, hopefully including better labelling on commercially-sold morels that could provide cooking requirements and a caution about eating in moderation. Remaining mushrooms from our harvest were tested, and the DNA was 100% morchella, true morels.  Farmer’s Markets run the highest risk, as anyone can purchase morels and know nothing about them.  They might even consume them raw, which can cause liver damage and even death in susceptible individuals. 

I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell Peter’s story, so that others will not suffer as he did and as his family and friends are, since we loved him and miss him so much…

An information sheet about morels can be found under Peter’s obituary on the Garden City Funeral Home website or by clicking here.