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Mushroom Good Agricultural Practices were highlighted by the president of the American Mushroom Institute at a May 13 meeting of government agencies in Harrisburg, PA.

AMI President Laura Phelps was one of a half-dozen speakers representing Pennsylvania agricultural interests at the meeting, which was titled FDA Produce Rule Listening Session.

Ms. Phelps spoke about the mushroom industry's food-safety efforts. In the text of her presentation, which she shared with The Produce News, Ms. Phelps noted that the mushroom industry in Pennsylvania and the nation has "a remarkable success story to tell — mushroom growers and shippers have truly been proactive in their food-safety efforts."

This referred to the creation of “Guidelines for Developing a Mushroom Good Agricultural Practices Program — Compost Preparation to Product Shipping,” which detailed the standards of a mushroom-specific, good agricultural practices program, known as MGAP.

“The mushroom industry has the only nationwide, commodity-specific, USDA-audited good agricultural practices program,” Ms. Phelps said. “In less than 18 months since the USDA checklist was finalized, farms representing the majority of U.S. production have successfully passed an MGAP audit conducted by USDA or other third-party auditor. And now in recognition of the changing regulatory climate and customer-driven demands, the industry is positioning itself to have a national certification and verification program for all growers and packers.”

Those “listening” at the meeting included an FDA team from Washington, DC: Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods; Mike Landa, acting director of the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition; Jim Gorny, the center’s senior adviser for produce food safety; Nega Beru, director of the center’s Office of Food Safety; Leanne Skelton, that office’s senior policy analyst; and Sharon Natanblut, FDA spokeswoman.

Also present at the meeting were Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding and Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Everette James. Ms. Phelps said that the philosophy of MGAP is “to keep it simple, make it practical, make it doable.” She added, “Create the tools, test them, and then teach them.”

She noted three key MGAP points. First, “For our workforce, every document is printed in English and Spanish. We hold two sets of training sessions — one in English, one in Spanish.” Second, “We give certificates for every training session we hold. People like to get recognition and credit for their efforts, and auditors like to see documentation.” Third, “You have to have the research to back up your food-safety plans. For an industry that uses composted animal by-products, this has been key.”

Ms. Phelps added, “We have the benefit of a small and cohesive industry, with both a strong trade association and a federally authorized research and promotion program which facilitate communication and cooperation. But I would credit our success to the commitment of our growers and packers. It starts with owners and goes throughout the entire workforce. The process never ends, from updating the standards to reinforcing good hygiene practices with harvesters.”

As for the upcoming produce safety rule, “AMI will be providing comments to FDA prior to May 23,” she said. “One topic I would mention today is that the size of a farm or its method of production does not negate the need for a strong food-safety program. In mushroom production, safe water, clean hands, sanitary facilities, an uncontaminated growing environment and common sense should be principles on every farm that is offering what it grows to a consumer. 'Scale appropriate’ means larger farms have more wells to test, not that smaller farms are exempt from testing. The MGAP program is just as applicable on a certified-organic farm as it is on one with conventional production.”

She concluded, “Finally, we urge USDA and FDA to dedicate resources for worker training. A huge amount of work has been done independently by grower organizations, land grant universities and extension agents. It would be very beneficial to bring these people together, let them share their experience and learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. We all have a responsibility to provide the tools that growers, supervisors, pickers and harvesters need to help them comply with the rules that are coming, but more important, to provide a safer food product to consumers.”