The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst chatted on Aug. 9 with Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute, Washington, D.C. You can read the entire chat on the Fresh Talk blog.

1:54 p.m. Tom Karst: Thanks for taking time for a chat today. What are you working on this week in D.C.?

Q&A | Laura Phelps, American Mushroom Institute

Phelps

1:54 p.m. Laura Phelps: Happy to be here! I’m working on food safety and monitoring pesticide use.

1:56 p.m. Karst: What’s the latest you hear about the timing of the Senate work on food safety — sometime in September?

1:57 p.m. Phelps: If it happens, it will probably be at the end of the session, so late September, early October. They are supposed to adjourn by Oct. 8. Then there’s always the possibility of a lame duck session.

1:58 p.m. Karst: Are you comfortable with the work the mushroom industry has done in relation to product safety? It seems the industry has been proactive about developing its own set of good agricultural practices.

2:01 p.m. Phelps: Yes, the industry is really ahead of the curve on good agricultural practices. This effort was started over 10 years ago. Because mushroom production is so unique, we needed standards and guidelines that were appropriate to indoor production. The risks are very low, but we needed our own program.

2:03 p.m. Karst: The creation of produce safety regulations is certainly a big undertaking. Can you compare it to any other rulemaking in your experience in D.C.? Are you hopeful the FDA can get it right?

2:06 p.m. Phelps: They certainly are trying. I’m very impressed with the listening sessions they held, the tours they’ve taken, really reaching out to their constituency. The mushroom industry has hosted FDA staff on several farm tours recently. They even accompanied the USDA staff on an audit. But realistically, even for noncontroversial regulations, it takes years from start to finish.

2:08 p.m. Karst: No doubt that is the case — we are a long way from the finish line. Speaking of starts and stops, how did you get your start in the produce/mushroom industry? What’s the story of your first job in the industry?

2:13 p.m. Phelps: Leaders from the mushroom industry came to the law firm where I work — McLeod, Watkinson & Miller — in 1989 for assistance in drafting a “checkoff” program for fresh mushrooms. After the lawyers drafted it, I helped the growers lobby Congress for its passage in the 1990 farm bill. After that, the trade association, the American Mushroom Institute, wanted a Washington office, so they hired our law firm to manage and house it and I’ve been the AMI president since then.

2:18 p.m. Karst: As you look to the future, what do your members consider their top issue they want you to focus on in D.C.?

2:19 p.m. Phelps: I think in regard to food safety, they want something practical and reasonable as far as good agricultural practices, so we don’t get into the audit creep. Our members want an audit that is based on what is appropriate to be audited and those audit results should be accepted by everybody. The issue with packinghouses where you can have a dozen different audits on a dozen different days and everybody looks at the same things — that is really a huge waste of everybody’s resources.