No one can say mushroom grower-shippers have put food safety on the back burner.

The industry has come up with its own commodity-specific good agricultural practices — known as MGAP — and many companies are meeting the milestones put forth in the Produce Traceability Initiative.

“The food safety angle is always on your mind,” said Gary Schroeder, director of Dole Mushrooms and president of Oakshire Mushroom Farm Inc., Kennett Square, Pa. “It becomes part of every decision you make.”

A formula for food safety

Besides being MGAP-certified, the company exceeds the PTI’s case-level traceability requirements and has traceback information on consumer packages, he said.

Oakshire has full-time employees who work on food safety and plans to hire another person in January.

The product is grown indoors, and “the biology of mushrooms is very favorable for us,” Schroeder said. But still, “You have to get in front of (food safety).”

Several of the industry’s larger, more advanced companies shared their food safety expertise with smaller firms to help bring them up to speed on food safety, said Joe Caldwell, vice president at Monterey Mushrooms Inc., Watsonville, Calif.

“There’s no competitive advantage in food safety issues,” he said. “We’ve got to work to make mushrooms safer for everybody.”

Monterey Mushrooms launched its quality control program in 1995 and had workers train with staff of the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The company has held unannounced third-party audits for the past five years.

“We feel that’s the best way to stay on top of our game,” Caldwell said.

The firm spends “well over six figures” on food safety annually, but considers it the right thing to do and something that must be done for its customers, he said.

Focus on PTI

To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, Pa., is about one year ahead of schedule on reaching the PTI milestones, said Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

The company late in 2009 invested about $250,000 in the Vantage case-level traceability system from Dallas-based SG Systems LLC, he said.

“It’s a pretty big investment for us,” he said, “but it’s what we need and what our customers expect.”

The company now is working to tie in the system with its accounting and inventory-control programs.

To-Jo also undergoes several Safe Quality Food audits annually, Frederic said.

The number of retailer inquiries about traceback and global trade identification numbers that Avondale-based Modern Mushroom Farms receives has dropped off over the past 12 months, said Greg Sagan, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

“I think the reason is that it has become an expectation,” he said.

Modern Mushroom Farms has been food safety certified for many years by both and AIB, he said. “We continue to follow all standard protocols and have completed our USDA MGAP certifications,” he added. “Our product has always been lot and date coded, allowing us to rapidly trace back products even before the Produce Traceability Initiative was started.”

Giorgio Foods Inc., Temple, Pa., also has been working hard on traceability, said Bill Litvin, vice president of sales and national account manager.

“Our product is all code dated with the ticket information that traces back to the growing house and crew doing the harvesting,” he said.

The company also has completed the certification process for MGAP and the firm’s packing facility has achieved SQF certification.