VESOUL, France (AFP) — A French court on Tuesday handed suspended 500-euro fines to two Romanians who organized a massive harvest of prized wild mushrooms from a forest where authorities have strictly limited how much a person can gather.
The two suspects, aged 22 and 60, had already admitted to leading a group of around 40 fellow Romanians last October who carried out the hunt in the eastern region of Haute-Saone, netting 586 pounds of ceps, also known as porcini or king bolete mushrooms.
The expensive fungi, which can be harvested just a few weeks every year, are a favorite of gourmet food fans in France and beyond.
In the Haute-Saone region only 5 kilos per person can be gathered in the wild, a limit that aims to ensure sustainable harvests year after year, and anyone caught with more than 10 kilos can face prosecution.
The Romanian organizers paid the pickers $3.30 a kilo for a delicacy that can fetch 30 euros or more at market stalls during the autumn season.
"They took out tremendous amounts," department representative Stephane Clement told the court.
Prosecutors, who had sought suspended three-month prison terms for both suspects, later said they would appeal a sentence deemed too lenient. The suspects did not appear in court Tuesday.
But some local officials say the Romanians, including the two suspected organisers, were only the foot-soldiers in a network that intended to sell the bounty to restaurants and other buyers.
"These poor people are just being taken advantage of," Christiane Oudot, deputy mayor of Fougerolles, near the forest where the Romanians' camp was found, told French daily Le Monde this month.
Local prosecutor Emmanuel Dupic told AFP that an investigation into human trafficking had been opened to try to find the heads of a network "exploiting these people's misery."
The confiscated mushrooms were donated to food banks and other charities.
© Agence France-Presse