Post From The Past. A Multitude of Mushrooms

First posted on November 7, 2009

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate microbiology student at McGill University in Montreal (Canada), I took a mycology course given by the Botany Department. Unlike courses in clinical mycology that I have taken, the Botany Department course surveyed fungi that live and grow in fields and forests.

The professor marked our final lab session by preparing for us a dish of mushrooms sautéed with butter and sherry. Needless to say, we gave him an “A+” for his final grade.

Despite – or perhaps because of – having taken that course, I have never tried to pick wild mushrooms for the dinner table. There are too many poisonous varieties that resemble completely innocuous mushrooms.

Everyone is familiar with the typical cultivated mushrooms that are found, either loose or packaged, in the produce section of the local supermarket. These mushrooms were on display at the San Francisco Farmer’s Market in September.

They can easily be confused with two very poisonous mushroom varieties – Amanita phalloides and Amanita ocreata – that, between them, were responsible for 894 episodes of poisoning in the state of California in 2008.

As I was reminded while roaming the Farmer’s Market, edible mushrooms come in a surprising range of shapes, sizes and colors. There are chanterelles and cioppini, portobello and pioppini, lobster mushrooms and oyster mushrooms.

These are just some of the mushroom varieties that were on display at the market.

And here are a few more.

The lobster mushrooms and oyster mushrooms intrigued me most – not only due to their names, but because of their growth and development.

Oyster mushrooms come in a variety of sizes and colors. They grow wild on dead tree bark, and look for all the world like oyster clusters. They are also reputed to taste like oysters.

lobster mushroom is the result of a parasitic fungus growing on certain species of mushrooms. The parasite changes the color, shape and texture of its host mushroom, producing a lobster mushroom.

With the amazing variety of mushrooms that are available at Farmer’s Markets such as the one in San Francisco, who needs to forage for fungi in the field?


Post From The Past. Say Raw Milk Cheese, Please!

First posted on October 12, 2009

To visit France is to experience cheese in its infinite variety of aromas, flavors and textures.

The French take their cheese seriously, and frown on the North American practice of using pasteurized milk to make cheese. Indeed, European cheeses that wish to boast a “Protected Denomination of Origin” – the cheese equivalent of wine’s “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” – must be manufactured from raw milk.

The US Food and Drug Administration permits the manufacture and marketing of hard cheese made from raw milk, if the cheese is aged at a temperature of at least 35ºF for no less than 60 days. Blue, brick and cheddar are a few of the cheeses that fall into this category.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company was just one of the raw milk-blue cheese producers on display at the San Francisco Farmer’s Market during our visit last month. The company makes its cheese exclusively with milk from its own herd of Holsteins. The cheese-making process begins within a few hours after milking, and the cheese is allowed to age for six months – well beyond the 60 days required by FDA.
But,” you ask, “What about Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and E. coli? Is raw milk cheese as safe to eat as cheese made from pasteurized milk?

According to Dr. Catherine W. Donnelly, University of Vermont Professor, Listeria monocytogenes expert, and co-Director of The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese(“VIAC”), the answer is “Yes” – as long as cheesemakers are educated about how to ensure the safety of their raw-milk products.

VIAC offers Beginning and Advanced Cheesemaking Certificate programs, which include a course on Hygiene and Food Safety In Cheesemaking, and one on Risk Reduction Practices. The Institute also conducts ongoing research, including programs onCheese Microbiology and Safety and Milk Quality.

Vermont and California are not the only states taking a hard look at hard cheeses made with raw milk. Maryland recently introduced a pilot program to encourage the production of raw milk cheeses on a few farms in the state. Pennsylvania, too, encourages an artisan cheese industry.

But don’t expect FDA to expand its acceptance of raw milk cheeses beyond the hard cheese varieties. Recent research carried out by Dr. Donnelly and her University of Vermont colleagues showed that Listeria monocytogenes can grow on aged soft cheeses (e.g., Brie and Camembert). This is true regardless of whether the cheeses were made using pasteurized milk or raw milk.

Sticking to pasteurized milk for the production of soft cheeses reduces the risk of pathogens in the raw ingredients and, therefore, in the finished cheeses. Nevertheless, Listeria monocytogenes, which is found just about everywhere in the environment, can contaminate the cheese after it is made.

What does this mean for the consumer? Simply, anyone who is elderly, very young, pregnant, or suffers from a weakened immune system for any reason, should avoid eating soft cheeses – especially those made from raw milk. Hard cheeses that were made from fresh milk of high microbiological quality and held at 35ºF for 60 days or more, are far less likely than soft cheeses to support growth of bacterial pathogens.

The insertion of sound science into the cheesemaking process by organizations such as VIAC is good for both the dairy industry and the consumer. If we continue along this path, the United States will someday be able to rival its European cousins in the art and science of artisan cheesemaking. As you can see, we’re already not doing too badly.

Some of the information contained in this article came from the following source:

D’Amico, D.J., M.J. Druart, and C.W. Donnelly. “60-Day Aging Requirement Does Not Ensure Safety of Surface-Mold-Ripened Soft Cheeses Manufactured from Raw or Pasteurized Milk When Listeria monocytogenes Is Introduced as a Postprocessing Contaminant” in Journal of Food Protection, vol 71(8): 1563–1571. 2008.


Post From The Past. Restaurant Inspections: Does Publishing The Results Do Any Good?

First posted on October 8, 2009

On our recent trip to San Francisco, my husband and I stayed at the Union Street Inn, a Bed and Breakfast located in the Cow Hollow district. We chose the Inn based on its excellent reviews on

When we presented ourselves at breakfast the morning after we arrived, I was delighted to see that the Inn had achieved a score of 100% on its most recent food service inspection. But – even though I am a food safety microbiologist – it hadn’t occurred to me to look into the food inspection history of the Inn before we made our reservation.

Most cities and counties in the developed countries carry out some form of routine restaurant inspection. Many local health departments post these inspection results on their web sites. Some jurisdictions – San DiegoLos Angeles and many counties in the United Kingdom, for example – go farther, and require that restaurants post their most recent inspection score on or near the front door (known as “Scores on Doors”). And a few agencies – including New South Wales, Australia – take the “Name and Shame” approach, publishing the names of food establishments that fail inspection.

Surprisingly, San Francisco does not require its restaurants to post their inspection scores. Instead, consumers must visit the web site of the San Francisco Department of Public Health to learn how their favorite restaurants stack up.

We stopped in at The Real Food Company, a local market and deli, for a snack one day.

I was favorably impressed with the care taken by a store employee in handling raw poultry as he loaded it into the rotisserie.

According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the store was inspected on September 3rd, just a few days before our visit. Real Food received an “A” rating, with a score of 90 points (out of 100). A score of 89 points would have meant a “B” rating. The inspector noted three violations – two “moderate risk” and one “low risk.” UPDATE: The store was last inspected on January 13, 2012, and “achieved” a score of only 81.

There has been a lot of on-line discussion recently on various food safety blogs about restaurant sanitation, “Scores on Doors” programs, and other food service issues. BarfBlog, in the United States and Le Blog d’Albert Amgar in France are both regular and responsible contributors to this topic.

I wonder, though, how many people take notice of restaurant inspection reports? Does anybody care?