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Death cap mushrooms – the industry is prepared for a perennial tragedy, writes Richard Bennett

Death cap mushroom image

With another four Canberra (Australian Capital Territory) residents struck down with poisoning from death cap mushrooms in April, the industry has the right to be nervous.

“ACT Health has confirmed another case of death cap mushroom poisoning, bringing the total to four in less than a week. The government was unable to provide any information about the patient and their condition was unknown.”

“The poisoning has prompted the ACT government to issue new warnings about the mushrooms, urging the public to be vigilant, especially if they see another member of the public picking wild mushrooms.”

Excerpt from an article by Fleta Page and Ben Westcott: ‘High numbers of death cap mushrooms around Canberra,’ The Canberra Times, 29 April, 2014 | Read the full article here

The consumer backlash to incidents such as this can be unpredictable. Those in industry know the difference, understand the supply chain and take it for granted; many consumers do not. For the uninformed, death cap mushrooms are the deadly poisonous type often associated with the oaks and pines they were presumably imported with in gardens in Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. They resemble commercially cultivated mushrooms, hence the almost annual autumn reporting of serious illness and death associated with wild-gathered death cap mushrooms.

To their great credit, the Australian Mushroom Growers Association (AMGA) had the first Crisis Management Plan for a sector of Australian horticulture. Known as AMSAFE, the plan is clear, concise and confidential to industry members. A Crisis Management Team is appointed, as are alternates in case team members are unavailable. The plan is reviewed regularly and members trained appropriately.

The good news is that after 13 or so years, the plan has never had to be mobilised. The only public face of the plan is this poster, issued to all mushroom growers to be placed in a prominent place in the business office.

According to AMGA General Manager Greg Seymour, the plan has morphed into a total industry risk management plan, covering support functions in quality assurance, pest and disease management, work health and safety, and industry risk management. “The crisis management plan is just one component. We are firmly of the view that preventing problems is more preferable than cleaning them up.”

And the plan didn’t need to be mobilised this time either. While coordination and communication behind the scenes was maintained, ACT chief health officer Dr Paul Kelly was the one in the spotlight. Even Woolworths, initially implicated by the first three victims as the possible source of the toxic mushrooms and then exonerated, did not need a spokesperson in the media but relied on the authoritative Dr Kelly to provide explanations of the relationship between the retailer, the mushrooms and the crisis.

The only thing worse than needing to activate your crisis management plan is not having one when you need one.

Originally posted to the PMA A-NZ blog on Thursday, 19 June 2014. Reposted at freshproducesafety-anz.com at the request of the author. 

Death cap mushroom image credit: Untitled by Hil 2008 (Some rights reserved, CC BY 2.0)