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A worker packages commercial mushrooms.
Reuters/Mark Blinch
A farm worker packages commercial mushrooms.
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This is what the US government demands from a cream of mushroom soup

By Justin Rohrlich

Under president Donald Trump, the United States has loosened automobile emissions standards, slashed the budget of the National Park Service, and chipped away at protections for everything from the environment to the LGBTQ community. But there’s one thing American leaders will simply not accept, and that’s substandard cream of mushroom soup.

A request for technical proposals issued Thursday by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) seeks a manufacturer to supply the government with an industrial quantity “#1” cans—12-ounce cans known in the trade as “picnic cans—of condensed cream of mushroom soup. The soup will be distributed as part of various federal food programs, including the National School Lunch Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which is focused on the low-income elderly population.

The agency is asking for a “narrative (not to exceed two pages) on the offeror’s experience with producing a cream of mushroom soup commercial product, and that product’s past performance (acceptability in the marketplace),” plus four sample picnic-size cans, which will be delivered to USDA offices “at no expense to the Government.”

There are a number of “must haves” upon which the USDA insists:

  • “Must have: good mouth feel, mushroom pieces are slightly firm, yet easy to chew.”
  • “Must have: creamy, smooth appearance which is neither excessively thick, or thin and watery, with visible mushroom pieces.”
  • “Must have: beige color typical of commercial reconstituted cream of mushroom soup.”
  • “Must have: a mild garlic, and other discernible flavoring typical of commercial reconstituted cream of mushroom soup. No scorched, or undercooked flavor.”

The winning soup will be easy to remove from [the] container,” will not contain “starchy clumps,” and will “have a smooth characteristic creamy texture which is neither excessively thick, or thin and watery.”

Fresh, dehydrated, frozen, or canned mushrooms are permissible, but they must be either sliced or diced, “not a combination of the two.” If they’re sliced, each one must be 3/16″x 3/8″x 3/8″ or larger. If they’re diced, the individual pieces must measure at least 3/8 inch. A supplementary “Canned Vegetable Amendment points out that the “overall color of the condensed soup must be as light as or lighter than the No. 3 color chip of the USDA Canned Mushrooms Color Standard.” It also adds additional detail on the texture requirements, instructing that the mushrooms must be “fairly tender and will not be excessively tough, rubbery, or soft.”

The flavor enhancer Monosodium Glutamate is strictly not allowed, though that’s a pretty tall order, as it’s found naturally in mushrooms.

Skimping or corner-cutting by bidders will not be tolerated, and personnel from the USDA’s Specialty Crops Inspection Division will perform the following 12-step procedure to ensure the mushroom pieces “average 8.0 percent or more by weight for the lot average with no individual sample falling under 7.0 percent by weight”:

  • Rinse deep sided grading tray and a U.S. Standard No. 8 sieve with water and invert to remove excess water.
  • Place rinsed tray with nested rinsed U.S. Standard No. 8 sieve atop scale and zero tare.
  • Mix condensed mushroom soup in a separate container using 20° to 22°C (68° to 72°F) water at a 1+1 ratio and gently stir for 2 minutes.
  • Pour the slurry from step 3. Evenly across the original rinsed sieve and tray atop scale.
  • Record total weight of this mixture.
  • Place sieve with mixture aside in sink.
  • Rinse cream sauce from tray and invert to remove excess water and return to the previously tared scale.
  • Gently rinse mushroom pieces and cream sauce in the sieve with 20 to 22°C (68° to 72°F) water until all visible free cream sauce is removed.
  • Tilt the sieve at approximately a 20 degree angle and allow to drain for 2 minutes.
  • Place original tray and sieve with mushroom pieces (previously zero tared, step 2.) atop scale and record weight of mushroom pieces.
  • Calculate percent mushroom pieces by dividing the mushroom WDW [washed drained weight], by total weight of reconstituted soup.
  • Record to the nearest one percent.

While the requirements are stringent, this massive cream of mushroom soup purchase could portend a glimmer of hope for American soup makers. Campbell’s, a bellwether of sorts for the industry, recently reported disappointing earnings due to falling soup sales and high carrot prices.