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Case Studies

Safety, fraud and regulations

When it comes to trade in fungi there are two significant issues. First, there are poisonous species. Some of these are deadly while others will simply make you sick, so there is the issue of public health whenever wild-collected fungi are sold. Second, there are highly valuable species so there is the issue of fraud, for where there's money to be made there will always be those who will cheat. Over time there have been various regulations governing the sale of fungi. I will briefly mention some of the relevant European regulations, up to the early 20th century, generally not in great detail but enough to give you a good idea of how the regulation of the sale of fungi was attempted in Europe up to first quarter of the 20th century. Apart from protecting the public, good regulations might have other effects. The pre-amble to the French town of Mâcon's regulation of 1905 noted that

...the regulation of the sale of fungi will not only prevent accidents, often fatal, but, by giving assurance to customers, will strongly promote consumption.

The earliest regulation that I have seen mention of is a Parisian one from 1720, but unfortunately I know nothing of its content. Another Parisian regulation (formally an ordonnance de police) of 1782 prohibited the sale of fungi of a suspect nature and required that officials inspect all fungi that were offered for sale at the Parisian market. This regulation was introduced when it was found that a number of people had become ill after eating a certain type of mushroom. I'll give an English translation of the full text of this regulation further on in the section headed Appendix1: Ordonnance de police, 1782. The 1782 regulation was succeeded by a post-revolutionary Parisian ordonnance de police of 1809, prompted by several fatal poisonings that had created some anxiety in Paris. Annexed to that regulation were several information pages prepared by the Conseil de Salubrité of Paris, a health advisory council with a strong pharmacist membership. Over the next century pharmacists contributed significantly to issues of French public health, including fungal matters. Pharmacist training included courses in botany and toxins and a number of French pharmacists of the 1800s became renowned mycologists. In those French markets that demanded pre-sale inspection of fungi, the authorized inspectors were often pharmacists. The information pages prepared by the Conseil included brief descriptions of poisonous species that might at first glance be mistaken for safe species. The 1809 regulation was reprinted in 1820. It stipulated that all fungi destined for sale in Paris had to be brought to the central vegetable market. All were to be inspected before being offered for sale at the market and any that remained unsold were not allowed to be put out for sale on a later day. Fungi bought wholesale at the market were allowed to be sold at other, retail, outlets the same day. However, the hawking of fungi in public streets or from house to house was expressly prohibited.

An 1812 Prussian law, aiming to prevent the consumption of poisonous fungi as well as having the intention of allaying fears about mushroom buying, allowed the sale of only eight species. In the words of the regulation all others were prohibited, "partly because some were poisonous but also because some harmless species could be confused easily with poisonous ones". I have seen mention of a 1794 regulation from Casselmaggiore in North Italy (Norme per il commercio dei funghi) but I know nothing of its content. In 1820 the Regolamento sulla vendita dei funghi (Regulation about the sale of fungi) was issued in Milan, then part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, an Austrian client state. Inspection was mandatory and sellers were not allowed to offer their wares in baskets or piled up, but had to have them spread out over tables so that everyone could see clearly what there was. All had to be in good condition and another of the 12 clauses ruled that any person who had unsold fungi would need to have them re-inspected before being allowed to offer them for sale another day. The regulation listed five species as being amongst the harmless ones but also required the provincial governments in the kingdom to produce lists of additional species found in their respective provinces and which were known to be harmless. A Viennese regulation of 1818 prohibited the sale of any species whose safety was not known for sure and a Lower Austrian government circular issued in Vienna in 1838 listed the 14 species allowed to be sold at the markets there.

Many other regulations came into existence during the 19th century and into the 20th, some in response to poisonings. There was a diversity of regulations because regulation was a regional matter, with some variation between different towns, cities or districts - even within the one country. Having said that it is important to add that throughout the 19th century there were far more places with an active trade in, but with no regulation of, the sale of fungi. Certainly by the late 1800s there were general food laws in place in various countries, aimed at protecting the public from unsafe products and with penalties for contraventions. Fungi were included at least implicitly in such laws (and sometimes by brief explicit mention) but that is different to specific monitoring of wild-collected fungi before sale - especially when those collecting the fungi and those selling them may have had little, if any, fungal knowledge. In 1902 Emile Perrot, who had trained as a pharmacist, published a survey of the European regulations on fungal sales, based on information he'd gathered over several years. In his introduction Perrot wrote that his report...

...will allow us to show how great is the indifference of the public authorities, in the different European nations, to this matter, the importance of which would escape no-one. The number of markets with proper, soundly-based regulations is quite small and, on the other hand, those wishing to undertake the arduous task of public education get no encouragement from the authorities...Understandably the lack of monitoring by competent people leads to timidity, often ridiculous, on the part of the magistrates.

Where there was no regulation or monitoring of fungal sales it was definitely a case of "buyer beware". This was shown very clearly by H. Videlier, a pharmacist in the town of Lons-le-Saunier on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. During a visit to the town market in 1895 he saw a magnificent lot of edible Agaricus mushrooms being offered for sale, but with some deadly Deathcaps (Amanita phalloides) amongst them. The seller refused to discard the Deathcaps, claiming that she frequently ate those mushrooms. She was so sure of herself that, according to Videlier, she would certainly have sold them to an unsuspecting customer. Videlier felt obliged to buy the offending mushrooms and destroy them before the seller's eyes, threatening to take her to the police if she tried again.

Despite the variation in the regulations that did exist there was a fair degree of overlap between many of them. Inspection by officially appointed inspectors was a common requirement along with a stipulation that any dangerous or dubious fungi were to be seized and destroyed. Fungi could be dubious for various reasons and even edible species could sometimes be rejected. The regulation in force in Graz, Austria, at the end of the 19th century noted that the outward appearance of certain edible species could vary depending on where they came from. If there were the slightest doubt about any fungi they would be rejected. Various places prohibited the sale of edible species if they were in poor condition - for example too old. As they age many macrofungi readily become hosts to moulds and bacteria and in such a state even edible species pose a threat to health. In Graz it was ruled that if, in a batch of fungi, a significant proportion was found to be in a state of decay the whole batch would be destroyed. The regulations commonly specified that only whole fungi were allowed to be sold. Some fungi are hard to identify if they are missing bits. For example a cup-like base, or volva, is commonly found around the stems of many species in the genus Amanita, a genus that includes several deadly species. The accompanying painting of the deadly Amanita citrina is taken from Champignons mortels et dangereux, a small guide book published in Paris in 1911. It was written and illustrated by Fernand Guéguen who had trained as a pharmacist. The painting shows three mushrooms with volvas around their bases. A volva carries a significant amount of information for seeing a volva immediately alerts you to the strong likelihood that you have an Amanita before you. Features such as surface scales on some mushroom caps or the short "skirts" found around the upper stems of some species (such as the Amanita shown here) are also very helpful in identification but can be removed by rough handling. All these points will help you understand why, for example, the regulation brought into force in 1905 by the French town of Mâcon included this condition:

The following fungi will also be confiscated: those damaged by insects or other parasites, those that are too old, those in poor condition as well as those that have been scraped, cleaned or disfigured before sale.

In order to better control inspections a number of regulations required would-be sellers to present their fungi at specific places. You've seen the Parisian example above and here are three more French examples. An 1889 regulation stipulated that, at Dijon, intending sellers of fungi "must first have them presented for examination by the food inspection service, either at the market or at the abattoir" and at Grenoble (1913 regulation) inspection was available only between 6 and 7 a.m at the market. At Romorantin (also a 1913 regulation) sellers could have their fungi inspected at the market between 8 and 9 a.m. on Sundays, from 1 to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and at other hours, or on other days, a would-be seller needed to take the fungi to an inspector's house. In addition it was common that in a regulated market there was a specific area allocated for the fungal sellers with a strict prohibition on any sales outside the designated area. In some markets there was even a further division, for example with the area allocated to the sellers of wild fungi quite distinct from those selling the cultivated Agaricus mushrooms. The latter presented no threats to public safety. In some regulated markets there were even set times, outside of which the sale of fungi was prohibited. Restricting the areas in which and the times during which fungi were allowed to be sold would have helped minimise the monitoring workload of the inspectors or market police.

There were two broad approaches to the control of what could be sold. In some places, anything authorized by an inspector was permitted. This allowed a potentially wide array of fungi to be sold but did rely on the inspectors being familiar with such an array. The other approach was to have a list of permitted fungi. This would have greatly reduced both the degree of competence expected of the inspectors and also their workloads. Lists of permitted fungi typically gave the Latin species names as well as the names in the common language - sometimes in both the national language as well as regional dialects. As you've already seen, amongst the places that followed the second approach there was variation in the numbers of permitted species. Over time there could also be variation in the permitted number even at a single place. For example, near the end of the 19th century at St. Etienne in France any species within the genera Clavaria, Helvella, Morchella and Tuber as well as an additional nine species were allowed to be sold. The revised regulation of 1921 doubled the additional species to eighteen. For much of the 19th century fewer than a half dozen species were allowed to be sold at the Paris market, though the number had passed 20 by the 1890s.

Drying will destroy or greatly distort a number of visual features in the fleshy fungi (such as mushrooms) and a number of regulations prohibited the sale of dried fungi - but remember that there were many markets with no regulations. Some fleshy fungi are still readily identifiable by the naked eye when dried but even when dried fungi were allowed to be sold in a regulated market, it was never the case that the full range of fungi allowed to be sold fresh could also be sold dried. For example, of the many species allowed to be sold in the canton of Geneva the regulation of 1916 allowed only three to be sold dried and they of course had to go through the usual inspection procedure.

Léon Azoulay, a French doctor and a member of the French mycological society, was interested in these matters and in the early 1920s he published the results of his studies into the regulations in force at the time. I've given some of his findings above. He also found it common that sellers were required to keep species separate, with no mixed lots offered for sale and that had been a requirement in various markets for some time. Typically each separate lot would need to be labelled with the name of the fungus displayed in that lot and such labels were obtained from the authorized inspectors. It was illegal to sell fungi without such a label and unlabelled specimens could be seized. As well as bearing the name of the species such labels would typically show the name of the seller, the name and signature of the inspector and the date. The label functioned as an authorization to sell and that authorization was valid only for the day on which it was issued.

Frauds and laxity

While the regulations were concerned mostly with public health that wasn't the case with every stipulation. For example, in the canton of Geneva's regulation of 1916 there was a clause prohibiting the sale of waterlogged fungi. Here the issue was value for money. Fungi were generally sold by weight, so a customer buying a waterlogged fungus is paying extra just for water. Similarly chantarelles (in the genus Cantharellus) were not allowed to be sold by weight in Geneva, which Dr. Azoulay attributed to chantarelles being rich in water. Included in the first article of the Genevan regulations were the common prohibitions on selling fungi that were insect damaged or which had been cut into pieces. However, article 8 made one exception to the general prohibition on cut fungi. Specimens of Boletus edulis were to be sliced into two pieces and any found to be worm-eaten would be confiscated and destroyed. Some boletes seem to be especially favoured as sites for insect eggs. Often enough you can pick a seemingly intact bolete but find it harbouring a good maggot population. I don't know the reasoning behind the Genevan article 8, but Boletus edulis has long been a prized species and I have seen it reported as prone to maggot infestation. Perhaps that particular Genevan rule aimed to ensure that when paying for a highly prized fungus, buyers were getting their money's worth of fungal weight.

Buying excess water was one way of being defrauded, even though you were at least buying the fungus you thought you were buying. You could also be defrauded by being sold something other than what it was claimed you were being sold. Indeed, fraud was the reason behind the Parisian regulation of 1782. The suspect fungus mentioned in that regulation was being sold in Paris and remodelled slightly so as to even more closely resemble edible mushrooms. You can read more about the story behind the regulation in the section headed Appendix 2: Mousseron sauvage, a little further on. Things don't change all that much. In 1924 Dr. Azoulay reported that at the Paris market it was not rare to see value-less false morels (in the genus Gyromitra) sold as true morels (the genus Morchella). It is easy to understand this sort of fraud when you see it reported that at times morels were more expensive than truffles. Incidentally, some species of Gyromitra are poisonous.

So what of the regulations? Regulations are only as good as their enforcement. Even before Azoulay's time there had been observations about laxity in enforcement at Paris. In 1889 François Gustave Planchon, director of the École Superieure de Pharmacie, noted that the Parisian regulations had been vigorously upheld for many years. In 1845 the Parisian Conseil de Salubrité had again been asked for its advice as to the necessity for any changes to the regulations and the Conseil had concluded that no change was needed. However, Planchon noted that in more recent years the sellers had been more and more successful in evading supervision. This was due at least partly to official indifference to the increasing numbers of transgressions but also there were few inspectors, making it virtually impossible to keep an eye on everything coming in. At times there might be a short-term clamping down, say after a poisoning, but without fundamental changes. Regulation of the wholesale market was, in principle, a fine approach for monitoring the fungi that were brought into the city in bulk from distant regions but, as Planchon pointed out, even if the wholesale market were well-monitored there was still the problem of those Parisian retailers who bought directly from collectors who picked mushrooms in and around Paris. In these circumstances the only protection against the sale of undesirable species would be a program of public education to promote general awareness of the dangerous species. Various fungal guide-books as well as some wall-charts and pamphlets had been published through the earlier 1800s but from the 1890s there was a great increase in both the number of titles and their print runs. The guide books varied greatly in content. You could get line drawings, coloured illustrations, detailed text or little more than captions and comments about species' safety. Amongst the fairly basic, well-illustrated publications were the FRENCH PHARMACY BOOKLETS. At least one newspaper, LE PETIT JOURNAL, responded to the demand for colour pictures.

It is harder to identify many dried fungi, more so if they have also been sliced, thereby giving greater scope for fraud when dried fungi are offered for sale. Professor Karl Giesenhagen of Munich, in a paper published in 1903, said he had found dried potato slices being passed off as dried mushrooms. He also noted that twice he'd found sliced water-lily rhizome being passed off as Boletus edulis, a species known in German as the Steinpilz - and both times by the same trader! Giesenhagen observed that sliced and dried rhizome pieces resembled sliced Steinpilz stems. The rhizomes of the particular water-lily were easy to come by, often being found washed up in metre-long lengths on river banks. Of course, at times buyers would get fungi - but cheaper or commoner substitutes. Giesenhagen told the tale of 14 samples he'd been sent for analysis in 1902 from one Prussian city. Each sample was ostensibly Agaricus campestris but there was no trace of the genus Agaricus. Most were parts of boletes with the tell-tale pore layer removed, so making it harder for a casual observer to recognize. This was nothing new, a similar substitution having been reported from Berlin in 1888. In that year another investigator had taken samples, ostensibly of Agaricus, from ten major sellers and found bolete pieces. Akin to the potato episode, in 1892 a member of the French mycological society reported having found turnips, sliced finely and then dried, being sold under the guise of dried mushrooms. In April 1922 another member of the same society had noted that in Italy poisonous species were being dried and exported. Presumably it's more patriotic to poison foreigners than your fellow-citizens!

Neither regulations nor fraud have stood still since the early 1900s. Modern regulations are in force in Europe and there is modern fraud - especially with truffles. For example I have seen reports of dyes used to create desirable "black" truffles and of lead pellets pushed into truffles to increase their weight and hence their price. A more subtle fraud has involved passing off certain Chinese truffles as high-value species. These Chinese truffles very closely resemble the gourmet truffles of Europe but are very much cheaper and without the full flavour. Not surprisingly unscrupulous people have bought Chinese truffles and then sold them on as gourmet truffles. This has become a serious issue in Europe but truffle fraud is not new. Over a century ago Karl Giesenhagen noted that valueless truffle-like fungi (such as Rhizopogon, a common genus) were being sold as true gourmet truffles and that sliced Scleroderma vulgare fruiting bodies were being passed off as sliced truffles. Eat the Scleroderma and you'll get sick. The mature fruiting bodies of Scleroderma are full of powdery spores and are not truffle-like, but they are globose and fairly solid until close to maturity.

Since we are back in the early 20th century here are two photographs from the book by Duggar, listed in the references below. On the left are mushroom sellers, with their wares, at Bozen in Austria and on the right is part of the mushroom market at Munich.


Appendix1: Ordonnance de police, 1782

This ordonnance de police was issued in Paris on 13 May 1782 and begins with a long title which summarizes its intent by stating it is a regulation...

Which prohibits the display or sale of any Mousserons, Morilles and other types of Champignons of a suspect nature or those that, though of a good nature, have been kept over from one day to another - with a penalty of a fine of fifty livres.

In the above summary are three fungal terms - mousserons, morilles and champignons - which I have left unchanged from the original - apart from highlighting them in bold font. Many non-speakers of French know of champignon as the modern French word for mushroom, but it can also mean fungus in general. The word mousseron is no longer in widespread use but was once quite common and is etymologically close to the English word mushroom. It appears that the word mousseron, in its most precise usage, denoted a small group of desirable mushrooms of a particular type. However, the term could also be used in a general way. Morille translates today as morel, the common name for the genus Morchella, but was once used more widely to also include some other fungi that are superficially Morchella-like. In my translation I have left a couple of other expressions unchanged but highlighted them in bold. A procureur du roi was a senior legal official (part prosecutor, part judicial administrator) and the syndics des jardiniers were officials involved with monitoring vegetable produce. Here is a translation of the body of the regulation:

We have been told by the procureur du roi that he has learnt that at Halle (and in the markets) something purporting to be a mousseron is being sold. This supposed mousseron is a type of champignon which grows in the woods and, though not the true mousseron, resembles it and can be harmful to health. Its suspect nature has been recognized by its offensive and evil smell. He has learned also that champignons that have been kept over from one day to another are being offered for sale and that these, though not of a harmful type, can become injurious to health when kept for too long. It has also come to his notice, via the advice of several zealous and well-informed doctors, that several people have recently become unwell through having eaten pies and stews which contained the suspect champignon, or champignons that had been kept for too long. Therefore he considers it his official duty to ask that we attend to this matter.

We now make a ruling at the request of the procureur du roi. In view of the reports of the doctors and surgeons of Châtelet we expressly prohibit and interdict the display or sale of any mousserons, morilles or other types of champignons of a suspect nature or those which, though of a good nature in themselves, have been kept over from one day to another. The penalty will be a fine of fifty livres. We direct the syndics des jardiniers to inspect meticulously all the champignons which arrive and which are displayed for sale; to seize all those which appear to be of a suspect nature and liable to injure health and to make note of any contraventions.

We order the superintendents at Châtelet, each in their own district, especially superintendent Serreau, the senior official of the district of Halles, to take in hand the execution of our present ruling, which will be printed, read and proclaimed and posted up in all places where it is necessary, so that no person remains ignorant of it.

[The ordonnance is signed and authorized by]

Jacques Simonnin

Huissier au Châtelet de Paris et seul Juré-Crieur ordinaire du roi et des cours et jurisdictions de la ville, prévoté et vicomté de Paris.

The Ordonnance was written in the complex sentences that seem to be standard in the legal language of any country. For example, in the original the first paragraph was all one sentence. I'll leave Simonnin's title untranslated except to say that in the French legal system a huissier was an official charged with carrying out legal decisions.

Appendix 2: Mousseron sauvage

In 1793 Jean Jaques Paulet, a Parisian doctor and mycologist, published an account of a fungus he called the Mousseron sauvage. Though not deadly it could cause adverse reactions and it was this fungus that had been behind the Ordonnance de police of 1782. Paulet gave a description of this mushroom, noting that in its early development it resembles a "mousseron of good quality" and then gave his version of what happened in 1782. The following is a translation of his words:

Since this plant looked suspect and could be put into use I took great care to assure myself of its effects on an animal body. I tested it several times but without producing any effect. On one occasion a dog which had been given a good dose vomited up part of it but without being greatly indisposed in any other way. In the spring of 1782 I ascertained that it was being sold in the Paris market under the guise of a top quality mousseron. I also confirmed that several people had been stricken with stomach pains and loosening of the bowels after eating pies into which it had been put. I informed the Magistrate of this and he immediately curbed this abuse by an ordonnance de police, dated 13 May of that year, which prohibited anyone offering any type of champignons for sale at the market, without first having had them inspected by the syndics des jardiniers or by other authorised persons. At the same time I was asked by the Magistrate to go to superintendent Séreau in order to make known what was injurious in this genus and what was not. All the champignons displayed for sale in the market were brought there and examined - and those belonging to the species we are speaking of were rejected. As this champignon is bulky, those who offered it for sale had taken care to cut it with a knife so as to reduce its bulk, rounded it off in the style of the small round-head mousseron and sold it thus, very expensively, within paper cones. Once this roguery was recognized it was suppressed and since that time has not occurred again.


Anonymous. (1820). Raccolta degli atti del Governo e delle disposizioni generali emanate dalle diverse autorità in oggetti sì amministrativi che giudiziari. Parte prima. Patenti e notificazioni del governo di Lombardia, dal 1° gennaio al 30 giugno 1820. Dall'imperial regia stamperia, Milano. [The Milanese regulation of 1820 is given on pages 27-30.]

Azoulay, L. (1921). Les empoisonnements dus aux champignons mis en vente et à ceux cueillis par les particuliers. Proposition de loi ayant pour objet de les prévenir - (suite). Revue d'Hygiène et de Police Sanitaire, 43, 927-954. [Examples of some early 20th century regulations.]

Cadet, CL. (1809). Hygiène publique. Bulletin de Pharmacie, 1, 89-96. [This contains the information pages prepared under the auspices of the Conseil de Salubrité.]

Chevallier, A. (1842). Sur les précautions prises relativement à la vente des champignons comestibles. Annales d'Hygiène et de Médecine Légale, 27, 301-306. [This gives the content of the 1782 and 1820 Parisian regulations, though without the Conseil de Salubrité's attachment, and makes no mention of 1809.]

Dalloz, D & Dalloz, A. (1847). Répertoire méthodique et alphabétique de législation, de doctrine et de jurisprudence en matière de droit civil, commercial, criminel, administratif, de droit des gens et de droit public (Nouvelle édition, considérablement augmentée et précédée d'un essai sur l'histoire générale du droit français), Tome huitième. Bureau de la Jurisprudence générale, Paris. [The entry for champignon, on page 79, lists four ordonnances de police - those of 1782, 1809 and 1820 (and I've said something about these on this web page) as well as one issued on 12 June 1720. The book simply notes that these regulations exist but gives no hint as to content.]

Duggar, BM. (1915). Mushroom Growing. Orange Judd Company, New York. [See pages 226-231 for comments about some of the European fungal markets.]

Giesenhagen, K. (1902). Die gesetzlichen Grundlagen der marktpolizeilichen Kontrolle des Pilzhandels in München. Zeitschrift für Untersuchung der Nahrungs- und Genussmittel, 5, 593-603. [This paper gives the details of the 1812 Prussian regulation and mentions the 1818 Viennese regulation.]

Giesenhagen, K. (1903). Bemerkungen zur Überwachung des Verkehres mit Speisepilzen. Zeitschrift für Untersuchung der Nahrungs- und Genussmittel, 6, 942-952. [This paper reports a number of fungal frauds.]

Guétrot, Dr. (1934). Le Quarantenaire de la Société Mycologique de France (1884-1924). Société Mycologique de France, Paris. [My source for the 1892, 1922 and 1924 episodes.]

Paulet, JJ. (1793). Traité des Champignons, Tome II. L'Imprimerie Nationale Exécutive du Louvre, Paris. [The "mousseron sauvage" extract, translated above, is from page 152.]

Perrot, E. (1902). La vente des champignons sur les marchés des différentes villes d'Europe. Bulletin trimestriel de la Société Mycologique de France, 18, 187-216. [Survey of late 19th century European regulations.]

Planchon, G. (1889). Surveillance de la vente en gros des champignons. Annales d'Hygiène et de Médecine Légale, Troisième série, 21, 176-182. [Discusses the Parisian regulations (briefly) and the later 1800s laxity in their enforcement. Explicitly mentions the 1809 regulation and notes the unchanged 1820 reprint.]

Rolfe, RT & Rolfe, FW. (1925). The Romance of the Fungus World. Chapman & Hall, London. [The Rolfes give the St. Etienne information.]

Videlier, H. (1896). Le marché des Champignons à Genève. Bulletin trimestriel de la Société Mycologique de France, 12, 163-166. [This includes an account of Videlier's meeting with the would-be Deathcap seller.]

Volbracht, C. (2006). Mykolibri. Die Bibliothek der Pilzbücher. Privately published, Hamburg. [The one-page Austrian circular of 1838 is reproduced on page 160 and the first page of the 1782 Parisian ordonnance de police is reproduced on page 320. While I found the content of the 1782 ordonnance in several sources, they gave neither name nor title of the authorizing official. Christian Volbracht kindly supplied those details from the copy in his possession.]