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hedgehog mushrooms are NOT chanterelles.
Whole Foods got it wrong. These are NOT chanterelles!

Whole Foods Makes Multiple Mushroom Mistakes!

I don’t shop at Whole Foods regularly, but my sister does. She texted me before Thanksgiving, excited to tell me she’d bought chanterelles for us to cook and share. Imagine my surprise to find that the mushrooms Whole Foods was selling as chanterelles were, in fact, nothing of the sort. Fortunately, they were another edible mushroom, so no danger of poisoning here, but still… Shouldn’t we expect more from a respected national retailer? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is yes.) Ah, but it gets worse. This wasn’t an isolated incident, and Whole Foods has chosen NOT to correct the problem.

 

chanterelles have gills
Note the gills on the chanterelles.

I couldn’t let this rest, so I went to the store (15 Washington St., Brighton, MA) and had a pleasant conversation with the woman at the service desk. She asked me to show her the incorrect sign, which I did. I also showed her how to differentiate between a chanterelle, which has gills, and what they were selling: Hydnum repandum (aka sweet tooth mushrooms, aka hedgehogs), which have teeth. As any mushroomer knows, these two mushrooms are astonishingly easy to tell apart.

 

 

hedgehog mushrooms
Sweet tooth mushrooms have teeth.

I gave her my business card, told her I had published two books on wild edible plants and mushrooms, and said she was welcome to contact me with any follow-up questions. I also told her that the price was right for sweet tooth mushrooms, and reassured her that sweet tooth mushrooms were both tasty and non-toxic. When I left the store, she was standing at the display, talking with two employees, presumably discussing the error and preparing to change the signage. Or so I thought.

 

 

My sister checked back a few days later and sent me a photo that not only showed that the sweet tooth mushrooms had been replenished and the signage had NOT been corrected, but also that a new common name had been added to the sign: yellow foot. Again, we mushroomers know that yellow foot is a common name for a chanterelle, not for sweet tooth mushrooms. Sigh.

 

morels
Morels are one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, and yet…

After posting about this on FB, I learned I wasn’t alone in finding bad mushroom signage at Whole Foods. A friend on Long Island sent this photo of morels mislabelled as shiitakes. Again, two edible mushrooms, so no danger of toxicity, but 1) Whole Foods could charge A LOT more for morels than for shiitakes, and 2) those two mushrooms look nothing alike!

 

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Clearly we can’t trust Whole Foods to correctly identify the mushrooms they buy, and clearly they shouldn’t be trusting or purchasing from any vendor who can’t tell the difference between a chanterelle and a sweet tooth. How long will it be before a mistake isn’t merely annoying, but is actually dangerous? Will they purchase Jack O’Lanterns labelled as chanterelles? A mistake like that will do much more than irritate people like me.

 

I’ve contacted corporate at Whole Foods with my concerns, but it’s been a week and I’ve heard nothing back. Except, mystifyingly, an email survey this morning asking if I’m satisfied with my interaction with the Whole Foods Customer Care Team. I’ve informed them there has been NO interaction, and that I am far from satisfied. I’ve also told them I’m surprised by their lack of concern about food safety and incorrect labelling.

Should I have been less pleasant and more demanding when I spoke with the service person in the store? I had every reason to believe she’d take me seriously. Should I have bombarded Whole Foods with my credentials? I expected my business card to do the trick, but perhaps I should have used words like Harvard, expert, food safety, and potential lawsuit. I’m not so naive as to think a national retailer actually cares about its customers, but I expect them to care about their reputation and bottom line, and this type of mistake does nothing to help either of those things.

Please be careful buying wild mushrooms at Whole Foods.

The next time you find yourself at Whole Foods, wondering how you can possibly trust their signage, know that you can’t. If you’re a forager, you’ll spot their mistakes without much trouble. But if you’re not a forager and you love wild mushrooms…how can you be sure you’re getting the right thing? Everyone makes mistakes, but there’s no excuse for not correcting an error when it’s brought to your attention, especially where food safety is concerned.

ADDENDUM: I received a call from the Brighton Whole Foods, apologizing for the mistake and explaining why it happened. While I appreciated the call, it did nothing to make me more comfortable with the quality of their labelling, since the explanation placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of an inadequately trained employee.

 

incorrect mushroom signage at Whole Foods
Something is wrong with this picture!

8 comments

  1. Catie C says:

    I wonder if part of the problem might be that they were reassured by their “grower in Oregon/Washington” or the packaging on the delivery boxes listing these as chanterelles. Which is actually a scarier prospect. A grower not knowing what kind of mushroom they are selling and mislabeling their own product… yikes!

    • Ellen says:

      I wondered the same thing, Catie. The fact that the sign says “grown” makes me wonder. Of course we know accurate signage isn’t a priority at Whole Foods, but if these mushrooms were truly grown, not wild harvested, then that grower has some ‘splaining to do.

  2. Joa says:

    I’m posting this to my mycology groups on FB.
    Whenever I see “wild mushrooms” on a restaurant menu, I feel obliged to order that dish, and then ask the waitperson to ask the chef which wild mushroom that might be, and where it came from. My husband used to be embarrassed, but after a few answers like “well, actually there are no wild mushrooms in the dish today”, and “mixed, they’re mixed mushrooms, we don’t know what kind”, he sees the point.

    • Ellen says:

      I do the same thing, Joan! I remember being out to dinner in NYC in spring and being told I was eating fresh, locally foraged, maitake. Nope.

  3. Rebecca Cody says:

    As a mushroom expert, perhaps you can solve a mystery for me. We were in Germany two years ago, in July. Every market had big displays of chanterelles ranging from the size of my thumbnail on up to 2-3″ across. It has been my understanding that nobody has figured out how to grow chanterelles, and they must be harvested in the wild. But HOW did all the markets have so many of them, so clean and arranged by size? Also, here in western Washington state, chanterelles show up in markets in the fall, never as early as July. How could they have managed to have them so early in the year?

    • Ellen says:

      I have no personal experience cultivating chanterelles, but I did a quick google search (which you probably also did), and it looks like progress is being made, although most are still wild-harvested. I can help with the other part of your question. There are many species of chanterelles, and the different species mature at different times. I harvest cinnabar chanterelles in July, and smooth chanterelles in August. The other thing to consider is climate. Many mushrooms mature in response to specific temperatures and moisture. For example, morels are harvested in Arkansas more than a month earlier than they are in Wisconsin. The difference in the growing conditions between WA and wherever you were in Germany may be another part of the explanation. Chanterelles are considered a summer/fall mushroom, so factoring in the difference species and different growing conditions, it’s not surprising to find mature chanterelles for several months.

  4. Jim Atha says:

    My local Wholefoods mislabels countless products. I’ve pointed it out , but the employees are usually too stressed to care and moral has plummeted. Bezos clearly is in ONLY for money and Monopoly!

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