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Can serving foraged food get you in trouble?

dandelion cutting board

Question:

I buy ramps, greens, wild mushrooms and other things from a forager who I really like. One of my cooks said that we could get in trouble since she is not an “approved vendor.” Is that true?

– Chef, New York

Answer:

Yes officially, the health code for New York City says, “Food shall be obtained from sources approved by the appropriate regulatory authority having jurisdiction over such food source and shall comply with all federal, state and city laws, rules and regulations related to food, the use of food, and food labeling.” (Article 81.07(i)). Most municipalities have similar guidance in place, though some are more generous with categories of food that are exceptions to the rule, especially for produce. In the height of ramp season it seems crazy not to be using nature’s bounty. The counterargument is that chefs are not testing soil or water quality when picking beautiful produce from the side of the road on their way to work.

Some foragers are properly papered and would qualify as “approved by the appropriate regulatory authority.” Others work under the umbrella of larger distributors so you shouldn’t have a problem. But depending on the status of your particular forager, your cook may be absolutely right.

Foraged ramps are fairly unlikely to cause a foodborne illness outbreak and to some extent fall into the territory of “everyone is doing it” (not that that argument will work with an inspector). However, if you decide to source off the radar, I would certainly avoid working with products like mushrooms where a mistake could be deadly. As usual, this is a balance between getting the best possible product for the best price and taking a calculated risk. My advice is to find a forager who both has great product and meets the local regulatory requirements. You may more for specialty products but would save in the long run.

More on foraging here.

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