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American Mushroom Institute focusing strong efforts on food-safety initiatives

"The industry does a great job of collaborating on food-safety issues. Everyone shares their knowledge and experience for the benefit of the entire sector: growers, packers and shippers," Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute in Washington, DC, said. "The Food Safety Task Force of the American Mushroom Institute has been reviewing the proposed rules that will implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, and is preparing comments to be filed by the September deadline."

Phelps added that all industry professionals realize that creating a food-safety culture isn't a marketing tool -- it's the way things must be done. And they believe that the industry is only as strong as its weakest link.

Since first drafting its own commodity-specific standards for a Good Agricultural Practices program in 2007, the industry has embraced the employee training, recordkeeping and written operating procedures that the food-safety law will mandate. The Mushroom Good Agricultural Practices program is audited by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private third-party auditors.

"U.S. Food & Drug Administration officials toured mushroom farms after the legislation was enacted and talked extensively with researchers at Penn State," said Phelps. "And so, the proposed rules take into account the food-safety processes that are undertaken at mushroom farms."

She added that a wide variety of training materials have been developed with the help of the industry professionals by Penn State and Food Safety Consulting & Training Solutions LLC.

"Most recently a 'Train the Trainer' kit on packinghouse sanitation was released," Phelps noted. "Materials are always made available in English and Spanish. Financial support has been provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture through USDA Specialty Crop Block grants and by the Mushroom Council.

Phelps also offered the summer update on the mushroom industry. She said that even though mushrooms are grown indoors, the extreme heat wave being experienced across the country can affect mushroom production and quality.

"Each growing room is climate-controlled," she said. "Just as it's difficult to keep your house cool right now, the mushroom houses are experiencing the same problem. Growers are turning to portable air-conditioning units and generators for additional cooling power to keep the rooms at 62 degrees.

"And as harvesters and equipment go in and out of rooms, keeping a constant indoor temperature when it's in the 90s outside is difficult," she continued. "These conditions can lead to some loss of quality in the mushrooms that are being harvested over this time period. Unfortunately, growers may also see some reduction in future yields."

Phelps further explained that the growing medium, or substrate, used for mushroom production goes through an outdoor composting process. High temperatures and dry conditions can affect this process by affecting the substrate to be used in the coming weeks or months to grow mushrooms.

"Shippers and receivers should closely monitor and maintain the cold chain as mushrooms are transported through the supply chain," Phelps offered. "This includes open trailer doors during deliveries. This leads to temperature fluctuations and condensation which speeds spoilage. It is also critical that mushrooms are immediately put into refrigerated coolers upon delivery to maximize quality and shelf life."