Blending mushrooms into retail
The Mushroom Council’s The Blend initiative began in 2014 as a foodservice project with the Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus Collaborative. It then evolved to include the Blended Burger Project with the James Beard Foundation in 2015. Today the movement is moving toward a strong focus on consumer outreach aimed at home cooks.
The initiative is quite simple; replace a portion of meat protein with finely chopped mushrooms in dishes like burgers, meatloaf, taco and other dishes calling for chopped meat.
Mushrooms have remained in the spotlight in the past year thanks to robust media coverage of The Blend. Blended burgers have been touted as the “burger of the future” and “top food buzzword” by “The TODAY Show”, “Forbes,” the Food Network, National Public Radio, “Food & Wine” and Fast Company. Even Weight Watcher’s magazine offered an article in a recent issue about how the secret ingredient — mushrooms — makes burgers healthier.
Mushroom producers throughout the country strongly support — and have joined in — The Blend trend. Several have even developed items for retail and foodservice operators that are already blended, typically frozen, and ready to cook.
Kevin Donovan, national sales manager for Kennett Square, PA-based Phillips Mushroom Farms said demand for both organic and conventional mushrooms continue to grow, and The Blend continues to be a driver.
“That Sonic Drive-In debuted a blended burger this past summer is very optimistic news,” said Donovan. “A large well-known chain that offers a blended burger can have a large impact on consumer trends. Word spreads among chefs quickly, as does the benefit of replacing a portion of protein with mushrooms in burgers and other foods.”
Although Sonic Drive-In is the first quick-serve restaurant chain to offer a blended burger, Mushroom Council officials feel that The Blend will continue to present a growth opportunity as more restaurants become interested in using fresh mushrooms.
The council’s research has resulted in nutritional, medicinal and general health claims associated with increased mushroom consumption. Mushrooms are highly nutritious, are fat-free, cost less than most meat proteins and are very flavorful.
“The results from the council’s extensive research is being used today to help in marketing mushrooms, and it will continue to be used in the future to benefit not only the mushroom industry, but also health and science,” Donovan said.
“The Blend is creating interest in mushrooms which has inspired more home cooks to explore mushrooms,” according to Bart Minor, Mushroom Council president and CEO. “The Council will continue to promote and partner with strategic organizations to grow awareness and acceptance of The Blend, and we will continue to expand it into retail.”
The increasing demand for mushrooms, however, hasn’t come without its challenges for producers. As production value has reached its all-time high, labor shortages are curbing production.
The value of mushrooms produced in the U.S. hit an all-time high last year of $1.22 billion, riding on the recognition of mushrooms as a major food trend combined with the increasing popularity of The Blend, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.
However, production dropped 2 percent to 929 million pounds, due in large part to the ongoing challenge of an inadequate agriculture workforce. The two percent decrease in mushroom production was consistent across the country, with growers in all regions saying it is becoming more and more difficult to find and retain labor.
This outlook resonates with other agricultural sectors that are also forced to leave crops unharvested due to labor shortages.
“The implications of both rising wages and labor scarcity have hindered production,” according to Daniel Rahn of the American Mushroom Institute. “The structural shortage of agricultural labor across all operations from the farm to the packinghouse is a critical barrier to increased production for U.S. mushroom growers and will likely result in price increases in line with growing labor costs.”
Despite the challenges, mushroom producers continue to ride the wave of increased demand and consumption.
Giorgio Fresh Co., headquartered in Blanton, PA, has been a major supporter of the Mushroom Council’s initiatives since the council’s inception.
Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Brian Threlfall, said, “Giorgio values the opportunity to collaborate with the Mushroom Council throughout the year.”
He pointed out that there continues to be increasing demand for blended products in both the retail and foodservice markets.
“Just in the past few months we’ve seen some significant additions of blended products in the foodservice sector,” said Threlfall. “As consumers continue to become increasingly more health-conscious, the trend-to-blend continues to become more appealing.
In addition to foodservice operations like restaurants, school systems — from K-12 and university levels — are a prime target for promoting The Blend.
“Giorgio has worked with many meat processors to help develop blended products,” explained Threlfall. “These items provide students of all ages and grades with increased nutrition with healthier menu choices.”