The Cause of Illness that Left 200 Sick has Been Determined

Mushroom institute finishes food safety audit

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By Andy Nelson

(Nov. 5) Food safety continues to be a hot-button issue for the fresh mushroom industry.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Mushroom Institute has completed a food-safety audit designed specifically for mushroom farms.

Earlier in the summer, two U.S. Department of Agriculture officials visited Kennett Square, Pa., the epicenter of the U.S. mushroom industry, to review the audit, and liked what they saw, said Laura Phelps, the institute’s president.

The institute hoped to put the finishing touches on the audit, incorporating the few changes the USDA officials recommended by the end of the summer, Phelps said.

The audit was completed and accepted by the USDA in early September, said Pete Gray, the immediate past chairman of the institute.

Mushroom growers can request an audit and the USDA would conduct it, Phelps said.

Audits have long been done on mushroom packinghouses and farms, Phelps said. But they haven’t been mushroom-specific audits. While that may work for packinghouses — a mushroom packinghouse isn’t that different from other produce packinghouses — there are significant differences when it comes to farms.

“Mushroom farms are very different — it was like trying to put a square peg into a round hole,” Phelps said of the audit process for farms.

There are certain risks mushroom growers don’t have to worry about because their product is grown indoors. However, that doesn’t mean they’re immune from food-safety risks, she said.

“Water needs to be tested, and employees need to be trained,” she said.

Employee training was at the heart of an initiative sponsored by the institute and conducted by Sergio Nieto-Montenegro, a Ph.D. graduate from Pennsylvania State University who wrote his doctoral thesis on food safety training and now owns his own food safety consulting company.

Nieto-Montenegro conducted four “training the trainer” sessions with grower-shippers, two on each coast, one each in English and Spanish.

The message, Phelps said, “isn’t rocket science”: workers must wash their hands, wear hair nets and use common sense.

What Nieto-Montenegro stressed in his presentations was the necessity of everyone in the company buying in to the program.

“You can’t have the boss coming without a hair net,” Phelps said.

Constant reinforcement is another must in any successful food safety program. The institute commissioned food-safety-related posters growers can plaster all over their farms and packinghouses, she said, emphasizing the importance of continual vigilance.

The organization hopes to develop mushroom-specific audits for third-party private-sector inspectors, such as Primus Labs, Phelps said.

The impetus for the audits came more from within the mushroom industry, Phelps said.

“Hopefully we’re getting ahead of the curve, because I’m sure they (customer requests for commodity-specific audits) will be there one day,” she said.

The rollout of the new audit among growers will be a gradual process, Phelps said.

“It’s not something you can just dump on somebody and say, ‘Here are 30 or 40 forms you need to fill out,’” she said. “We’re going step by step.”

The American Mushroom Institute is the industry leader when it comes to food safety, said Bart Minor, president of the San Jose, Calif.-based Mushroom Council.

“From a funding standpoint, we are putting more money into food safety initiatives,” Minor said.

Without the most vigilant of food safety plans, Basciani Mushroom Farms, Avondale, Pa., wouldn’t be able to land and keep the Applebee’s, Olive Garden and similar casual-dining foodservice accounts that are the company’s bread and butter, said Fred Recchiuti, marketing director.

“It’s incredibly difficult business to attain, because they all have very strict food safety requirements,” he said. “We’re proud to say we’ve been able to keep up with the food safety race.”



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