I have been an avid wild foods forager (you have no choice when trying to feed a family of 15 in those days) since 1960, a mushroom hunter since 1987, and a professional hunter and buying agent for larger mushroom companies on the Pacific northwest coast since 1997, right up until my return home here to New Brunswick, Canada in 2006 where I established Fiddlehead Heaven Forest Products. We were the first company in North America to harvest and offer Chaga in its natural form on the web to Canada & the USA and the rest of the world at that time.
As a mushroom buying agent and harvester for some of the largest mushroom companies in the world in some of the very most remote areas of North America, I have seen all the nasty tricks that some of the most unscrupulous people will try to get away with, when it comes to selling their mushrooms and other wild harvested products. And this is where the consumer needs a professional experienced buying agent of these wild food products who acts on your behalf to protect you from some of the people who harvest these products!
I have a saying that goes like this:
I know everything I need to know about a harvester just by looking in his or her basket of mushrooms or other wild harvested products they bring to me. What they bring will tell me one of three things about that person:
One: This person has never done this before and requires some training!
Two: This person has done this before and their pride & integrity for quality shows in how clean and perfect their product is. (in which case, I will favor their future harvests)
Three: and the worst kind of harvester: This person is experienced and knows how to do it right, but just doesn't care at all about quality, how their product looks, or what they pick. They do it for the money only. Although they would never feed their product to their own family, they would and will try to sell it to my family and yours just for the money.
I hate to say this folks, but this is also true for some Chaga harvesters I have come across here and in other parts of North America. And this is where a buyer of wild mushrooms has to be on their toes.
Mushroom harvesters are almost always paid by weight, and here are some of the things that people have done to add more weight to their mushrooms:
It is for this reason now that I will only buy fresh-picked Chaga from other harvesters in my area now, so that I can spot this sort of tampering. If it has been soaked, I will know it because it will be very dark on the inside and mushy on the outside rather than the fresher golden color it should be on the inside and rough and dry on the outside. But once dried, the color returns and looks natural unless the Chaga was harvested on a dead tree; we will not buy dried Chaga from anyone at all now because of this.
Cut the trees down to get the Chaga they can not reach (unless you own the land, this practice is illegal on private or public lands)
If you purchase Chaga and find that the tea made from it is too bitter to drink, then this Chaga was harvested from a tree that was dead. When the tree dies, the Chaga no longer has the ability to disburse the water naturally back into the tree that it takes in from after being rained or snowed on. The mushroom then becomes waterlogged and will start leaching.
The most important thing for us all to remember, is that Chaga is symbiotic to living trees, not dead trees! So Dead Tree, Dead Chaga!!
Look to living trees.... for that black charcoal-like outer layer and once knocked off the tree, look for the rich golden brown color of the inner part of the Chaga.
Although I have trained many people to harvest wild mushrooms throughout North America since 1997 and some of them are very dedicated to what they do, I personally still check each and every mushroom that is brought to me for signs of tampering or soaking.
And again folks I hate to say this, but make sure you know and trust the person or company you are buying from. It really is okay to ask the company or harvester for references, including us!
There is another mushroom that grows on dead Birch tree called Tinder Conk and although it looks nothing like Chaga on the outside, the inside (after dried) looks very much like Chaga after it is ground up into powder. So just beware that there are people out there mixing this mushroom with the Chaga as a filler. And as if that isn't bad enough, there are also companies adding bark (not the paper) from the Birch tree as a filler. However the inner bark layer (phloem) does hold the same medicinal properties as is in Chaga, just not as concentrated as the Chaga itself. Companies who do mix this inner bark to their Chaga Powder should inform the customer that they do this.
That's why we prefer to offer our Chaga in its raw form so people can see, feel and smell it, in its' natural state.
Do not be afraid to ask the person or company you are buying from for such things as, business licenses, FDA registration numbers, and ask for references as well. I personally have been certified twice through the 'Canadian Herb, Spice And Natural Product Coalition' which include CHSG & GCAPs international food safety protocols.
Also ask how long they have been in the business of harvesting and selling Chaga, and do they harvest other wild mushrooms? If they do not harvest other mushrooms, then run very far away from this person or company. And ask what they are doing to ensure a sustainable future harvest for Chaga and for their harvesting protocols.
Have they taken a food safety course or have a Food Safety program in place. Are they using Food Grade tools for harvesting and are they processing in food grade bins & tubs and process and package on food grade surfaces? All wild harvest products for food purposes deserves all of the food safety precautions to be taken as they do in the commercial production of cultivated food products.
Below is our Food Grade processing facility, and here is where I would like to point out that Wood is not a Food Grade material and that it can harbor, absorb and spread bacteria if used as a processing table or drying surface.
I mention this because recently I have viewed some really fancy websites that look fantastic until I see their drying racks for their Chaga and other botanicals made of wood and that tells me that they are not a Food Grade facility and probably do not have a Food Safety program in place and should be subject to an inspection from either a CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) or USDA agent to bring their food processing facilities up to code for their customers and the public's safety.