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Mushroom industry continues to face difficult times

"As a result of farm closures, fewer imports and rising production costs, the supply of mushrooms dropped late last year and has not yet recovered to previous levels. This, coupled with weather-related production challenges, resulted in across-the-board increases in the prices paid to growers," said Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute, based in Washington, DC.

Ms. Phelps told The Produce News in early May that the "tipping point" for national mushroom supplies was the exit of Franklin Farms in North Franklin, CT, which closed its doors June 1, 2006. At that time, Franklin planned to continue to produce only specialty mushrooms, which was a tiny fraction of its previous production.

Of the Franklin closing, Ms. Phelps said, "Taking 30 million pounds off the market had a significant impact, especially when that production hasn't yet been completely replaced."

Several other farms across the country shut down during the past six months, and others are said to be headed toward bankruptcy or be turned into housing developments, Ms. Phelps said. A shortage of harvesters has had a severe impact and reduced production during peak demand periods.

There are mushrooms being left on the growing beds because they can't get them harvested before the next crop is due to be started, she noted. "Growers tell me that with a short work force, there's just not enough time in the day to get them all harvested."

There are additional challenges as mushroom-growing costs continue to increase. "Two of the fastest rising costs -- labor and energy -- represent almost half of total production costs. Even the surge in use of crops for biofuels has had an effect. Growers have experienced price increases for raw commodity inputs such as wheat straw used in making the growing medium and for production supplements, which use soybean products."

In 2006, the rapid rise of fresh imports that had been seen since 1994 was halted. She said that imports of fresh agaricus mushrooms were down 6 percent, while the price of those imports increased 5 percent from the 2005 level.

"Another factor has been the resurgence of the domestic processed mushroom market. Prices paid to U.S. growers for mushrooms destined for the cannery tripled as production problems overseas cut imports for the first time in seven years.

"Last year was the first year we've seen any slowdown in imports [for both] fresh and processed. The volume of canned mushroom imports was down 16 percent, which is remarkable," Ms. Phelps said. "In addition, the price was up 12 percent from the year before, so domestic canned products are more competitive - as long as you can find them.

"Never before this past year did I get calls from food manufacturers, retailers and consumers wanting to know where they could get domestic processed mushrooms," she continued. "Now with the food-safety problem in China, demand is certainly going to increase. No one in the food supply chain -- from grower to food manufacturer to retailer to foodservice operator -- wants to take on that liability of potentially tainted food when you have a safe, trusted alternative. That's what I see the domestic mushroom market as providing."

She noted: "D?j? vu is how the mushroom industry views the current food- safety calamity with melamine contamination in pet food and livestock feed from China. The shortfalls in inspections of imported food were evident in the late 1980s as contaminated canned mushrooms from China resulted in several foodborne illness outbreaks."

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration instituted a lot-by-lot release program for canned mushroom manufacturers in China, but this only requires a review of manufacturing records by a third party process authority, not an actual inspection of the plant by FDA, much less of the conditions under which the mushrooms are grown or shipped to the factory.

The AMI leader noted that mushrooms have an advantage over commodities produced outdoors since all U.S. mushrooms are grown in climate-controlled buildings in a special growing medium produced specifically for producing mushrooms.

"We make our own soil, so what's good for the mushroom is there, but all pathogens have been removed through a pasteurization process," Ms. Phelps said.

"We're ahead of the curve on food-safety programs because our packinghouses have been going through foodservice audits for years," she added. "And because most of the packinghouse operations are vertically integrated with their growing operations, it's easier to understand the whole process of standards, procedures and documenting everything you do."

The industry is working with Pennsylvania State University in State College, PA, to review several documents currently in use. The first tool a farm can use is a mushroom farm food safety and security self-assessment developed by Penn State, which allows growers to prepare for a food-safety audit by identifying potential hazards and actions that can be taken to reduce them.

Ms. Phelps said that since mushrooms have a unique growing system, specific guidelines for Good Agricultural Practices were developed in 2004. The next step will be a food-safety training kit that can be used on the farm for workers at every level.

"We've formed a task force with a wide range of people in various levels of responsibility at farms -- owners, quality assurance staff and harvesting supervisors -- to make sure that the GAPs are up to date, workable and guarantee a safe product for consumers," Ms. Phelps said.