Two people died from liver damage after a New Year’s eve dinner in Canberra where they ate Amanita phalloides (death cap mushrooms). A third person later died in hospital. Death cap mushrooms have been involved in the majority of mushroom poisoning deaths around the world including, in ancient times, that of Roman emperor Claudius.
Death cap mushrooms are not native to Australia. They originated in Europe and are found throughout that continent and in parts of North Africa. However, shipping timber and live tree seedlings around the world has seen the Death Cap spread to North America, where it’s most common in California. It also occurs in parts of South America and in Australia. The mushroom is common in the Canberra area, where it probably arrived with the oak trees that were imported from Europe to line that city’s streets, but is also found in Victoria and has been spotted in Tasmania.
Unfortunately, death cap mushrooms resemble species commonly eaten in other countries, particularly China, and many of its victims have been Chinese people living in Australia. The New Year’s Eve incident in Canberra involved a respected chef, Liu Jun, who worked at the Chinese bistro located, oddly enough, at the Harmonie German Club. (The club no longer has a Chinese restaurant but has opted for the more predictable sausages, pork knuckles and sauerkraut.)
It appears Liu Jun was a fan of foraging and fresh food and used his local finds to prepare a private dinner for friends after the official New Year celebrations ended. He and one of his guests died a few days later waiting for liver transplants at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. A third guest recovered, not having eaten as much of the stir-fry that contained the poisonous fungi. Another man who died in hospital at around the same time was poisoned in a separate incident.
Four people in Australia have died from eating death cap mushrooms since 2001 with a further four becoming seriously ill. The poison works by destroying the function of the liver and kidneys. Usually, the initial symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps abate, but a few days later the damage to the internal organs becomes so great that victims frequently die. There is enough poison in one death cap to kill an adult and cooking does not lessen the toxicity.
In 2014 a young woman in Canberra sued Woolworths, claiming mushrooms bought from the supermarket contained traces of death cap. After eating the mushrooms in a curry she became critically ill and survived only through a liver transplant and subsequent bowel surgery. Woolworths rejected her claim and she was unsuccessful in her lawsuit.
A further catastrophic mushroom poisoning event occurred in 2023 in the South Gippsland town of Leongatha, when three people died after eating a home-cooked Beef Wellington. A fourth person was critically ill but later recovered while the cook herself claimed she had been ill and was herself hospitalised after eating the meal. She reported she had bought the fungi at a supermarket and an Asian grocery store.