Unlike commodities grown on farms and ranches, mushrooms are raised indoors in unique, environmentally controlled environments. While that’s good for the product, it created a challenge for producers when buyers started requesting growers to submit to food safety audits from auditing firms accustomed to analyzing conventional growing methods.

“We were really trying to put a round peg in a square hole,” said Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute, Washington, D.C.

Just over a year ago, the institute, working with industry members, came up with a solution — good agricultural practices designed specifically for mushrooms.

The MGAP program is a set of standards that incorporates Food and Drug Administration requirements, private sector third-party auditor guidelines and recommendations from food safety experts at Pennsylvania State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service.

“We worked with USDA to develop an audit checklist based on this set of standards,” Phelps said.

USDA employees visited mushroom farms in 2008 to train MGAP auditors.

The first mushroom-specific audit was at Kaolin Mushroom Farms Inc., Kennett Square, Pa., in December 2008, she said.

“They actually had their audit the day after USDA finalized their audit checklist,” Phelps said. “They were really on the ball and wanted to be the first ones out of the gate.”

The institute also developed a complete package of training materials, set up training sessions for growers and provided templates, sample checklists, schedules and policies — all the documentation time-strapped producers needed to establish a food safety program.

“We put the papers together for them so they could focus on the implementation,” Phelps said.

The institute also worked with packinghouses that pack mushrooms for small and medium-sized growers.

“We got the buy-in of the packer community to strongly encourage their growers and to adopt the MGAP program,” she said.

Mushroom packers gave themselves an informal deadline of the end of 2009 to have themselves and their growers audited. As of the end of November, 40 of the 100 U.S. mushroom farms passed the MGAP audit, representing up to 70% of the 800 million pounds of mushrooms produced in the U.S.

“It’s been extremely successful, especially given the very rough economic year that we’ve had,” Phelps said.

Next, the institute hopes to establish similar programs for specialty mushroom varieties, like shitake and oyster mushrooms, she said.