What The Health?! Woman dies after eating at Michelin-starred restaurant — but were mushrooms really to blame?

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Morchella esculenta (Getty Images)

A 46-year-old woman died and 29 people became sick after eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain.

On Thursday, it was determined that María Jesús Fernández Calvo died from asphyxiation from particles of vomit in her lungs after eating at Riff restaurant in Valencia.

The cause of illness hasn’t been determined but investigation is ongoing.

However, some media outlets have speculated that the women who perished had eaten a dish with Morchella esculenta mushrooms, better known as morels.

Also called true morels, the fungi can be poisonous if not thoroughly cooked.

The woman apparently developed symptoms of food poisoning, including vomiting and diarrhea, after eating at the restaurant, which has one Michelin star. She died on Feb. 17.

Her husband and son also experienced symptoms of food poisoning. More than 20 additional patrons who had visited Riff between Feb. 13 and Feb. 16 also showed signs of food poisoning. 

The mushrooms haven’t been confirmed as causing the sickness and death, and such adverse effects are rare.

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However, eating wild mushrooms can carry risks.

Some species are toxic unless cooked —especially morels, according to Paul Kroeger, a founding member and director of the Vancouver Mycological Society. He points to a case in Vancouver in 1991 when raw, fresh morels were served in a salad at a banquet at a major hotel. Of the 483 guests, 77 got sick.

“Morel mushrooms are toxic if eaten raw,” Kroeger says, noting that this was apparently not the case in the Spanish incident, where they were said to be cooked into risotto. “Certain people may have a severe reaction to specific kinds of mushrooms, including morels, even when the mushrooms are properly prepared. That was apparently not the case in Valencia where numerous diverse people were made sick.”

“Many edible mushrooms contain small amounts of hydrazines and other volatile compounds that are toxic or carcinogenic but are eliminated by cooking,” he adds. “Over-mature and poorly stored mushrooms may contain micro-organisms of incipient decay and are often implicated in adverse reactions.”

Kroeger notes that many compounds found in fungi have strong antibiotic effects, and it’s suspected that consuming even well-known edible species in excess or when improperly prepared can cause gastrointestinal distress by disrupting a person’s natural intestinal biota.

Wild mushrooms could be contaminated by the environment they grow in, says Bill Jones, a Vancouver Island chef who runs Deerholme Farm and is considered an expert in foraging and wild foods.  

“Mushrooms are like sponges and readily absorb local contamination,” Jones says. “If wild, they could have been in contamination with something like pesticide or industrial chemicals.

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“Fresh morels can be infected with mold,” he adds. “This mold can cause lots of problems in people, particularly those with compromised immune systems and may result in some of the symptoms described in this case.”

If the mushrooms were preserved, Jones says, botulism poisoning could be another possible factor in the illnesses and death.

“Dried morels are safer than fresh morels,” Jones says. “Raw morels can be dangerous and should always be cooked well as a precaution. People with compromised immune systems or kidney and liver issues would be advised to limit their consumption of wild mushrooms.

“Discard any fresh mushrooms with mold or dampness,” he says. “Morels will collapse when wet and are prone to mold.”

He also suggests storing morels in a basket with lots of ventilation and with paper towel on top and beneath the mushrooms.

For anyone considering foraging, experts stress the importance of never eating any wild mushroom that you cannot positively identify.

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As the investigation continues in Spain, the BC Medical Association issued a study noting that the world’s deadliest mushroom is growing throughout the province.

Doctors there are being taught to recognize the symptoms of poisoning from death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides), which are responsible for 90 percent of the world’s mushroom-related fatalities.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control reports up to six cases of toxic exposures in the province to date, one of which was fatal.

A Victoria toddler died in 2016 after eating a death cap mushroom picked in a residential neighbourhood.

People who ingest a poisonous death cap typically go through three phases, according to the study. The first dysentery phase is characterized by abdominal pain, vomiting, and severe, cholera-like diarrhea that may contain blood and mucus, and often results in profound dehydration.

In the second phase, called “false recovery,” which occurs 24 to 72 hours after ingestion, people’s symptoms seem to improve but liver damage is progressing.

The third phase occurs four to nine days after ingestion and is marked by acute liver and multisystem organ failure that can lead to convulsions, hemorrhage, coma, and death.

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