Dr. Mark L. Gleason, professor at Iowa State University, gives out legal certification for inspecting and selling morels. Gleason was speaking at the Great Plains Growers Conference on Thursday morning at Missouri Western State University.

Distinguishing between real morel mushrooms — and anything similar but far less edible — highlighted a unique class held Thursday at Missouri Western State University.

The workshop, held as part of this year’s schedule at the three-day Great Plains Growers Conference, zoned in almost entirely on the often thorny issue of ensuring food safety regarding the delectable springtime fungus found in the wild. Besides advice on harvesting, the class gave participants the opportunity to earn legal certification for inspecting and selling morels over the next three years. A certificate is good for those who came to the conference from Missouri, but also those who traveled from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Illinois.

About 40 pupils were tested on their knowledge of morels, with the information presented by Dr. Mark L. Gleason, a professor in the plant pathology and microbiology at Iowa State University. A score of 13 correct answers on a 20-question exam was necessary to clear the study, and all who attended passed — although a re-testing would have been available as an option.

It marked the first time in the conference’s 20-year history that such course work has been offered, said Tim Baker, a University Extension horticulture specialist based in Gallatin, Missouri. Shoppers at the North Missouri Produce Auction in nearby Jamesport, Missouri, had expressed interest.

“It’s kind of an experiment,” he said of the workshop. “I’m amazed. It’s a really good turnout.”

Baker said the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Kansas Department of Agriculture manages the native mushroom certification and regulation programs.

People will occasionally drop by his office, asking for help in properly identifying a mushroom found on their outdoors excursions. Some Missouri mushrooms obviously will cause illness, with some varieties resulting in allergic reactions too, according to Baker.

Gleason said the certification is noteworthy since it standardizes the marketing of real morels at farmers markets, restaurants and other retail outlets.

“So that’s my purpose here today,” he added. “It’s to educate the group.”

It takes precise visual training to properly recognize the edible type of morel.

“I think we accomplished that today,” Gleason said.

The school treated such matters as understanding the symptoms of mushroom poisoning: damage to the nervous system, bloatedness/gas and vomiting. It’s a good recommendation for mushroom hunters to throw out a find if there’s any doubt.

Missouri’s other wild edible fungi also were covered, with inky caps and hen of the woods included in the list. The students were asked if they had ever eaten any of the sort, and several knowingly raised hands.

Later sessions featured cultivating shiitakes for personal use, the Midwest’s other mushrooms, and a mushroom farm in Lawrence, Kansas. The conference continues today and ends Saturday at the university.

Ray Scherer can be reached at ray.scherer@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPScherer.