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Mushroom industry taking food-safety issues seriously with strong initiatives

by Christina DiMartino | October 21, 2011
When harvested, mushrooms are placed in tills. The blue tags note the picker’s identification number. (Photo courtesy of the American Mushroom Institute)

Fresh mushrooms have never been associated with a foodborne pathogen or bacteria outbreak, and the mushroom industry has implemented every possible resource in its efforts to keep it that way.

Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute in Washington, DC, told The Produce News that despite the fact that mushrooms grow in a unique environment very different from that of field-grown produce, and such production reduces the risk of pathogens, the industry decided about 10 years ago to aggressively engage in a food-safety program.

“There were two reasons for this decision,” said Ms. Phelps. “One was because customers were requesting audits related to food safety from all of their suppliers, and the other is that mushrooms grow in such a unique way that they don’t fit into other agricultural safety programs. Pizza Hut and Papa John’s were the first companies to require packinghouse audits.”

The companies wanted audits that covered how mushrooms are sliced and packed, but it was quickly realized that any food-safety program had to include the farm level.

Increased awareness of a need for a food-safety program within the mushroom industry came with the 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, which was associated with California-grown spinach. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said that three deaths and 102 hospitalizations were reported to its office as a result of the outbreak. The economic impact on spinach growers was tremendous. The United Fresh Produce Association estimated that losses to processors alone reached $50 million to $100 million, not including losses to growers or retailers of spinach or other fresh-cut products.

“That people died or became ill was a real wakeup call to the industry,” said Ms. Phelps. “Every company associated with mushrooms got together to work in a united way toward a program that was specifically developed for the mushroom category. There was no resistance, and everyone agreed it was the right thing and the smart thing to do. Farmers realized that it would also improve their operations because it would call for specific procedures that would be documented, which would result in better crops. Monitoring daily processes and following best practices that are required to be documented every day helps to keep people on their toes and less prone to make errors.”

In December 2008, the Fresh Products Branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Marketing Service, in collaboration with the AMI and Penn State University, finalized a commodity-specific audit utilizing the standards outlined in the mushroom industry’s best practices document. This audit checklist is being used by USDA auditors to measure mushroom producers’ efforts in conforming to the good agricultural standards outlined in the Mushroom Good Agricultural Practices document. The MGAP audit is only the third commodity-specific audit developed by the USDA and the only one that is national in scope.

The MGAP program ws rolled out in stages that included training sessions for smaller farms, many of which are grower-partners of large firms. These sessions continued through 2009, and by 2010 everyone was on board with the program.

In January 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama. It requires the Food & Drug Administration to come up with regulations for the safe production, harvesting and packing of fresh produce in what is being called the “Produce Rule.”

“The mushroom industry feels it will be very well positioned to fit right into whatever the FDA requires,” said Ms. Phelps. “The draft rules are expected to come out in early 2012, and a year for comment will follow. The draft will help people to realize that these rules will apply to everyone, and permanently.”

The North American mushroom industry is growing rapidly. In 2010, the value of mushroom sales hit an all-time high and exceeded $1 billion. According to the recently revised U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service Annual Mushroom Crop Report, production of all varieties rose 9 percent from the previous year to a record 861 million pounds.

Mushroom production is strong in both the United States and in Canada.

“Ontario and British Columbia [in Canada] both have large production centers that enter the United States primarily through Michigan, Washington state, Oregon and California,” said Ms. Phelps. “Mexico also has a substantial industry, but the majority of the mushrooms produced there are used domestically. Other countries don’t compete with the U.S. in fresh production.”

The American Mushroom Institute is a national voluntary trade association representing the growers, processors and marketers of cultivated mushrooms in the United States and industry suppliers worldwide.