Fresh mushrooms have never been implicated in any outbreaks of foodborne illness, says Laura Phelps, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Mushroom Institute. Nonetheless, mushroom grower-shippers — along with most buyers — make food safety a top priority.

“All of our customers require a copy of our third-party audit,” said Fred Recchiuti, general manager of Basciani Mushroom Farms, Avondale, Pa.

Implementing a food safety program can be a financial challenge, he said, with costs for food safety and other inputs going “sky high,” while prices remain flat.

“There’s quite a bit of heightened awareness,” said Gary Schroeder, director at Dole Mushrooms, Kennett Square, Pa. “Some retailers have asked for what they perceive as a more stringent set of (safety) standards.”

Some customers want their suppliers to adopt an auditing protocol that is compliant with the Global Food Safety Initiative.

“We’ve been doing that for a number of years,” Schroeder said, and so have the farms and co-packers associated with the company.

A few buyers still send out their own in-house auditors.

“As people get more comfortable with universal standards, like GFSI, our hope is that everybody will accept that and cut down on the number of separate visits that you have,” Schroeder said.

But he added that though the process is time consuming, the company is ready and willing to play host to auditors.

“We’re happy and proud to show off what we do,” he said.

Schroeder just wants to be sure, however, that safety requirements that auditors impose are effective and “are truly adding value as opposed to (being) a feel-good exercise.”

Costs are an important consideration, he said.

Schroeder said he would like to see all buyers use the GFSI protocol.

Implementing a food safety program is “terribly time consuming and, at times, even cumbersome,” said Joe Salvo, president of Ponderosa Mushrooms & Specialty Foods, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. But it’s necessary to ensure a safe product for the consumer.

The company has made food safety a priority since it was founded in 1994, he said.

“Even before the third-party auditing requirement was there, we were committed to packing and shipping a quality, fresh product daily,” Salvo said. “It’s a cost of doing business.”

More and more customers of Sebastopol, Calif.-based Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. request third-party certification, said Bob Engel, chef liaison.

“They want to know that there’s not only an internal audit but also a third-party, objective external audit being conducted,” he said.

The dollar cost of an audit is not excessive, he said, “but the input of our time was considerable.”

“This is not a pro forma, just-for-show kind of audit,” he said. “This is an audit that’s done in great detail with great care.”

“We put in a significant number of hours with top management as well as all of the relevant supervisors.”

Although many shippers are committed to the Produce Traceability Initiative, many are yet to implement it, Phelps said.

“Most are waiting for their customer base to get on board, but in the meantime they feel it doesn’t make sense to apply barcodes now, when customers do not yet have the capability of scanning them,” she said.

At Basciani Mushroom Farms, Recchiuti said the company has invested heavily in the PTI.

“We are now compliant with the Produce Traceability Initiative,” he said. “Our products are all bar-coded with GTIN numbers.”

He termed the project a huge expense.

Dole Mushrooms long ago started labeling its outbound items, Schroeder said.

The company chose to label its product at item level rather than case level.

“We think that gets the traceability the whole way into the consumer’s refrigerator,” he said.

Mushroom grower-shippers feel confident about their food safety procedures, but “There’s no such thing as absolute risk-free,” Schroeder said. “We’re all aware of that. It just keeps us diligent.”