Back in 1987, American Airlines infamously eliminated olives from its salads to save about half a million dollars a year. It is a simple story, demonstrating the power of scale when it comes to savings. The way the story was popularized, it was said that it was assumed the salad ingredient would never be missed and so, Bob Crandall, then CEO and a legendary cost-cutter, saw it as an easy place to save money.
The story makes sense. After all, how many people select their flights based on the quality of the food — much less whether there are olives on the salad?
Yet the story is incomplete. Here is how they explain what happened in a book called Corporate Creativity: How Innovation & Improvement Actually Happen by Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern:
Over many years of collecting meal trays in aircraft cabins, flight attendants had come to know that most passengers did not eat the olives in their salads. Somehow this fact came to the attention of Crandall, who ordered a study to determine how much money would be saved if olives were eliminated from salads. The study showed that 72 percent of customers were not, in fact, eating their olives.
Moreover, the airline paid for salads based on the number of items in them sixty cents for up to four items and eight cents for five to eight items. The olive was the fifth item. The olives were discontinued for a savings of roughly $500,000 per year. Soon afterward, an association of olive growers found out about this. They contacted Crandall and threatened to boycott the airline if olives were not restored to the salads. After some negotiations, American agreed to stock every flight with olives and to make them available to any passenger who requested them. This arrangement required no extra catering, since some olives were already put aboard every airplane for martinis.
On the one hand, this is a story of exemplary management. There was some mechanism to bring staff observations to the CEO’s attention; there was a willingness to listen; there was research conducted to confirm the assessment of the associates and to quantify the impact if a cut was made in this area. So management was both concerned with the customer experience, vendor relationships and looking for opportunities to save money.
Yet it is not at all obvious that the optimal decision was made. The big savings came about because of peculiarity in how salads were priced with olives pushing the salad price into the 5 to 8 item bracket. The study showed that 28% of customers ate the olives. Maybe those 28% of customers, or some portion of them, preferred American Airlines because they had an overall better experience on the airline due to their enjoyment of the airline’s meals.
Perhaps what the story was actually showing was a disjunction between the menu planning and procurement operations. The salad was designed, perhaps, without the Chef realizing he could have three more ingredients for free. Perhaps some cucumber, an artichoke heart, heart of palm, some peppers, a baby potato or any of dozens of other possibilities could have been added to the salad to delight customers.
One of the most common errors in interpreting research is to think that the most commonly appreciated attributes are the place to focus one’s attention. Virtually all studies of consumer shopping venues indicate that cleanliness, assortment and price are the top three attributes that consumers value in a store. It would, however, be a big mistake to think this means that the most effective customer solicitation effort would involve cleaning the store twice as often.
In most cases, the very preeminence of a consumer desire for cleanliness means that it becomes a kind of “ante” that one must pay up on if one wants to be in the game. So the local Safeway, Kroger, Publix or HEB store is likely to be sufficiently clean to attract customers. The key to gaining customer loyalty may be a great offering of organic product or kosher product or Asian specialties. All these attributes may only show up as important to a relatively small percentage of shoppers. Precisely for this reason, however, not every store will excel in these areas and therefore an opportunity is created for those who wish to seize it.
What Crandall did was to ensure that the salads American Airlines served would meet the requirements of most customers. He also ensured that they would be nothing special and not be a reason for people to prefer to fly on American Airlines.
This all comes to mind because Ilan Brat wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal titled, At Supervalu, Cost Cuts Are in the Bag:
As Jenn Cooksey watched baggers at an Albertsons supermarket in Boise, Idaho, recently, she spotted a no-no: A bagger had stuffed a jug of milk in a plastic bag all by itself.
Ms. Cooksey, the store’s customer-satisfaction manager, pulled the bagger aside and reminded him that under the store’s new bagging guidelines, large items with handles get bags only if customers ask.
The new rules are part of a training program that Supervalu Inc. believes will save it millions of dollars a year by putting more items in each bag or skipping the bag altogether. Plastic bags cost about two cents apiece and paper bags cost five. The Eden Prairie, Minn., operator of Albertsons, Acme Markets and Jewel-Osco stores uses more than 1.5 billion plastic and paper bags a year at about 1,100 stores, not counting its Save-A-Lot discount stores, where customers bring or pay for their own bags.
“We’re in a very competitive industry. Anything we can do to lower our expenses will help us keep our prices as fair as possible,” says Supervalu spokesman Mike Siemienas.
We will put aside for a moment the Orwellian nomenclature that gives a “customer-satisfaction manager” the job of depriving customers of choice in bag options. All we have to recognize is that bagging is, of course, part of the customer experience and changing that experience can impact customers. The same story points out that Wegmans had to backtrack on a bagging change:
The efforts carry risks, as Northeast grocer Wegmans Food Markets Inc. discovered in 2009 when it tried its own bagging switch. The Rochester, N.Y., chain of 77 stores adopted a bigger, sturdier bag to boost the average number of items per bag, but customers complained that the filled bags were too heavy, says spokeswoman Jo Natale.
Last year, Wegmans returned to a smaller bag, and this year it is testing a smaller bag that includes 40% recycled plastic.
Some of Supervalu’s efforts don’t seem very customer-driven:
Some of the Supervalu guidelines reinforce familiar bagging rules, such as starting the packing at the corners and moving from the outside in. But others break with common practices: No double-bagging. No bags for large items or items with handles, like one-gallon orange-juice containers. Never ask, “Paper or plastic?” — just use plastic bags. The rules can be broken, but only on request.
It is true that plastic is cheaper than paper, that double bags cost double the money and that a few pennies can be saved if things with handles don’t get bags. What is missing from this story, however, is any indication that Supervalu tested this and determined that shoppers were happy with the new bagging regimen.
It is often said that one can only manage what one can measure. Fair enough. But the corollary of this is that management has to always be on guard against making choices simply because data on that particular thing is often available.
We see this all the time with shrink, and we once wrote a column about this issue as related to floral. Management, especially senior management, wants to increase profits. They have no particular ability to divine how to sell more floral products but they can get a report that identifies shrink. Then it is easy to order a reduction.
They can give bonuses for achieving a reduction in shrink; they can place flowers behind closed door displays; they can create an incentive for store level personnel to order fewer flowers, etc. They can achieve the reduction in shrink.
Most often, though, the big shrink reduction effort also reduces sales and profits.
So this Supervalu effort of trying to push plastic bags on consumers who might prefer paper… trying to require a hyper-consciousness to get a double bag as the effect won’t be felt in the store parking lot where people have carts, but only at the house where bags will break because they are being carried… this whole effort will probably achieve its goal of saving money on bags. But some small percentage of shoppers will find the shopping experience, which includes getting the goods in the pantry and refrigerator and freezer, to be less desirable and will switch to stores that respect them enough to ask them their preferences: paper or plastic?
They will like shopping someplace that cares about whether the bag will break as they go from the street or garage to the kitchen.
In other words, because this is not driven by an urge to delight the consumer but by an urge to avoid giving the consumer what he or she wants, the savings in bags will likely be quickly exceeded by the cost in lost customer preference.
They have a lot of talented people at Supervalu. The CEO should focus on finding out how those people would propose to delight the consumer. Sticking people who like paper with plastic hardly seems an auspicious start.
This week is the inaugural edition of a new industry event: A collaboration between two industry associations has led to a conference with a focus on US/Mexican trade. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slot to find out more:
Q: What was the impetus for launching the America Trades Produce U.S./Mexico Trade Conference?
A: McClung — Fresh Produce Association of Americas and my organization teamed up to put this conference together because, in our opinion, it was time for a regional, sector-specific conference for the produce trade.
Well over $6 billion a year worth of produce is imported from Mexico to the U.S., and that number is increasing every year, amounting to a significant part of U.S. produce supply. Because we are dealing with two cultures, language problems and challenges and opportunities you don’t have in traditional domestic trade, this conference will look at a broad array of issues; everything from our historic relationship to food safety concerns — probably the single biggest issue concerning us all — phytosanitary concerns, unrest in Mexico and what it means to business. These matters are intense.
It is the right conference concept at the right time. This is not just for the private sector but the governments in both countries. We want to believe people will attend because they understand its importance, but we don’t know how successful it will be as it is brand new.
Q: For those on the fence, why should people come to this conference?
A: Jungmeyer — It is really a great venue to unite buyers on the U.S. side and sellers on the Mexican side, box to seed companies all in one location, at the same time as having government officials in the same room. All the players involved in making the deal happen and regulating it will be gathered in the same place. That should be a huge attraction.
A: McClung — Obviously, there are always issues between buyers and sellers across national boundaries. We need to take a frontal approach, lay it all out and minimize the risk or economic barriers, or deal with whatever the problem is. That requires input from the private sector and government; both have obvious roles. The goal is to address these issues as directly and with as much expertise as possible. We are bringing together an esteemed panel of speakers to cover a wide range of topics.
A: Jungmeyer — One of the most exciting sessions is food safety because of the new food safety laws on the scene. We’re still finalizing speakers on the U.S. and Mexican side, but Bob Whitaker of PMA will be leading the session, and Dan Vache of United Fresh will be discussing the role traceability will play.
Both importers and exporters from Mexico have such a high level of business at stake, understanding the changes that need to be implemented will be a big draw. One aspect requires importers to verify food safety standards. While this may already be done based on a company’s own reasons or what buyers have required, not 100 percent of importers are doing so. This puts the burden on the importer to prove product is grown in a safe manner, which is good for the industry.
Q: Is there unease from members about meeting new legal mandates?
A: Jungmeyer — For the most part, the requirements mirror Good Agricultural Practices that the industry has already suggested to FDA. Congress has given FDA the authority to direct foreign governments or third-party auditors to certify product imported to the U.S.
Mexico already has been doing all this work to verify safe product, but so far FDA hasn’t had the authority to recognize efforts going on in Mexico to satisfy FDA’s own standards. There are aspects parallel to what the U.S. is doing. Now FDA will be able to work with the Mexican Government to make changes or tweak practices to meet our standards.
Q: Do you think this will help combat safety concerns in the marketplace about Mexican produce?
A: Jungmeyer — Another important session to attend gets to the heart of this problem: Dispelling Myths to Sell More Produce – A Communications Toolbox for Mexican Produce.
Because of pervasive negative connotations, it is often challenging for the importer or seller of Mexican produce to refute them, even though these perceptions are false. Mexico has all sorts of safety requirements, and companies in Mexico are already used to meeting high standards — in many cases above and beyond those of the U.S. However, a disconnect remains entrenched with many buyers and retailers, who say they don’t want Mexican produce because they think it’s unsafe.
I see stories about Mexican produce on the Internet and I look at the comments. There are so many disparaging things written that aren’t factual. Many Americans just don’t get it. We hope to give marketers of Mexican produce ammunition, that Mexican produce is safe and not grown with banned pesticides. Frankly, so many misperceptions out there need to be countered.
Q: How is demand for Mexican produce evolving, and what are the key logistical issues and infrastructural changes that are taking place?
A: McClung — If you look at USDA statistics generated, in the last year or so, you’ve got huge volumes of produce coming across the Mexican border, 3.3 million truckloads of produce in given years, and that doesn’t include produce going from the U.S. to Mexico.
Q: Do you see a long term shift of business from Nogalas to Texas?
A: McClung — Historically, Nogales has been a primary port of entry. In the year ended August 2010, 543 10,000 pound units from Mexico were imported through Nogales. This compares to California with 218 10,000 pound units and Texas with 524 10,000 pound units.
It’s quite even between Nogales and Texas, but a lot of people don’t realize that. What’s happening is a gradual shift to Texas because of improved infrastructure and price of diesel. It can be a savings of $1,000 or $1500 on a trip.
There are not very good east/west highways and two very substantial mountain ranges.
Mexico has opened up some new roads, and next year will be opening a major east/west highway. That is what is driving a big part of the shift. Companies aren’t abandoning Nogales, just shifting some of their accounts.
Infrastructure is improving in both Mexico and Texas. The demand hasn’t been there for the capacity until recently. We’re now in a very substantial growth spurt.
A: Jungmeyer — I don’t see a long term shift to Texas. I see importation of Mexican produce growing in general. Especially with freezes on the east coast, buyers that didn’t previously purchase Mexican produce now have it on the radar screen. There is a great market through the entire U.S., not just the Western half. Until recent times, Mexico supplied winter vegetables for the western side, and Florida would take care of the east side. Buyers on the east coast are seeing consistent, quality supplies out of Mexico.
Q: Do you envision FPAA and the Texas Produce Association merging down the line?
A: McClung — We’re very different organizations. We cover 90 percent of the business between our two organizations, but I don’t see a merge.
A: Jungmeyer — Those are my sentiments as well.
A: McClung — Arizona is about 100 percent imports. Texas is 60 percent imports and 40 percent domestic. If you break it down, Arizona has considerable production in the Yuma area, but that doesn’t come under the FPAA umbrella for the most part. Texas is the second largest state in terms of consumption of fruits and vegetables in the country, certainly representing major markets, but Mexican produce is going all over the country.
A: Jungmeye — We’re receiving good feedback from the members that they like seeing these issues being brought to a greater audience.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve had a conference like this?
A: Jungmeyer — FPAA has had a border trade symposium in 2008 and 2009, held in Nogales and geared toward what’s happening there, which represents about 45 percent of the produce coming in from Mexico. Texas represents 45 percent, and California the other 10 percent. By launching America Trades Produce U.S./Mexico Trade Conference, we cover the breadth of the market.
A: McClung — I’m hopeful that people in the produce industry interested in trade between Mexico and U.S. will come to this conference. There is just too much meat on the table to walk away.
Few things are more important to the future success of the produce industry than successfully integrating trade between the US and Mexico, so a conference devoted to facilitating that process is a great idea.
It is also great to see industry associations collaborating to make things work.
One of things that happens when the industry shifts is that the relevance of industry organizations has to shift as well. One wonders if down the road the Texas Produce Association won’t split, with one organization representing the interests of importers and another of grower/shippers. Although many grower/shippers are now importers, it still is a challenge to represent the interests of, say, Texas citrus growers and those who would like to import citrus from Mexico.
On the other hand, Mexico has the potential to become sufficiently integrated with the US industry that the conferences and organizations we need today may not be needed in the future. Already, organizations such as Wal-Mart and H-E-B are leveraging the procurement arms of their Mexican retail divisions to supply US stores with Mexican produce.
With movement on the Mexican trucking issue, the new highway that will ease east coast access to Mexican produce and a growing interest by retailers in being direct importers, one can see a more seamless web developing.
The big obstacles:
1) Food safety and traceability are significant issues. Although many US companies have operations in Mexico that are run to US standards, and the top Mexican producers are operating at world class standards, the Mexican industry is split with many producers selling on the domestic market without adhering to world standards. Although little of this product reaches the US or global markets, its existence means that a fully integrated market is not yet feasible.
2) Corruption and safety are issues that preclude full integration of markets. Although many of our friends do business with Mexico — in fact they are increasing business with Mexico — they are not oblivious to safety issues and have changed their travel plans and the routes they take.
One big reason why direct importing from Mexico is not more common is corruption.
Years ago the Pundit used to buy a lot of Mexican watermelons for shipment overseas. Back in those days, we needed a Generalized System of Preferences Certificate, which testified to the fact that the melons were grown in Mexico, classified as a developing country, and thus exempt from certain duties. We found that some shippers would promise to get us those certificates and try as they might, they never could. Other shippers seemed to have stacks of these official government certificates in their desk drawers.
The situation has certainly changed but corruption is still a big problem.
Obviously no one conference will resolve all the issues, many of which have more to do with Mexico than the produce industry, but this new event has a great program and a powerful list of speakers. It is an important addition to our industry resources.
If you are at all interested in Mexican/US produce trade, it is certainly the place to be.
You can get hotel information here and registration info here.
Our extensive discussion of the local phenomenon included an exchange regarding procurement policies at U.C. Davis:
More On PMA Foodservice…Everyone Is In Favor Of Better Flavor But Is ‘Local’ A Solution Or An Ideology?
Tom Reardon of Michigan State University Speaks Out: Wither Local?
Dissecting The Meaning Of Local, Sustainable And Flavorful
Pundit Mailbag — Taste Trumps Over ‘Local’
Pundit Mailbag – Where Does ‘Affordability’ Fit Into UC Davis Local Decision?
The key issue, as we saw it, was not that UC Davis elected to adopt some policy. People and organizations do things for all kinds of subjective reasons — reasons related to aesthetics or simple personal or organizational preference.
The issue was that factual statements were being made to support these policies and that the many experts at UC Davis were not standing up to rebut these assertions. Some of the assertions were substantively related to produce… that locally grown product was always more tasty, more healthy, more kind to the environment, etc. Since none of this is proven, and much of it is almost surely false, we argued that advocates for locally grown were using these claims as cover to further their own policy preferences.
We argued that if UC Davis or other procurers wished to increase flavor, safety or reduce environmental impact, these organizations would be advised to procure specifically based on these standards, not use “locally grown” as a proxy for these attributes.
We were also concerned that the economic claims being made regarding the benefits of buying local were not only unsupported by the evidence but were, in fact, clearly contradicted by well established principles of economics. Our series started with a piece based on a panel discussion at the PMA Foodservice Conference, which was moderated by two UC Davis faculty members, one of whom is an agricultural economist. We put the matter this way:
Both Dr. Hardesty and Dr. Feenstra are highly intelligent and very knowledgeable people, but they seem to suffer from excessive politeness. When panelists went off on wild tangents to proclaim idiosyncratic versions of macroeconomics as if they are accepted gospel, they stood silent. For example, when one panelist started to wax poetic about the importance of not shipping money to Chile and praising the importance of keeping money cycling in a local community, one would have thought a trained economist like Dr. Hardesty would have raised her hand to speak up for the principle of comparative advantage. Yet she stood silent.
We went on to explain that this kind of thinking would wind up making us all poorer. Here is how we put it:
Obviously nobody is opposed to UC Davis sourcing locally; if the least expensive source for produce that meets all UC Davis criteria happens to be local, of course the school should buy it. But on what basis can the school either raise the meal plan cost, tuition or get more money from taxpayers so it can buy more product within 50 miles rather than less expensive product 100 miles away? This is completely unclear.
And what is the point? The UC Davis website says the point is “To support the livelihood of growers, producers and processors of our regional community.” But this is just another version of Beggar thy neighbor policies. So UC Davis will support its local community, and UC San Diego will support its local community and Cornell will support its local community and Michigan State its local community—and when we are all said and done, we will be much poorer because instead of producing things where it is efficient to do so, we will buy things where it is politically correct to do so — and that will impoverish us all.
Dr. Hardesty and Dr. Feenstra wrote jointly in response to the Pundit but dismissed the Pundit’s interest in economics as irrelevant to the situation:
Mr. Prevor must have gotten an “A” in his microeconomics class since he clearly articulated the conventional theories of economics, including that of comparative advantage. Comparative advantage, however, supposes that markets already exist. The topic that this year’s Produce Marketing Association bravely tackled was the emergence of new markets to respond to a burgeoning consumer demand for more local, sustainable and flavorful food.
This was very unclear to us. Economic principles apply to both new and old markets and, in any case, we didn’t see selling food locally as a particularly new market.
Now a prominent agricultural economist has passed on to us an article that stated the case well. Written for the Library of Economics and Liberty by Jayson L. Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood, both faculty members in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, the piece is cleverly titled, The Locavore’s Dilemma: Why Pineapples Shouldn’t Be Grown in North Dakota:
Oklahoma’s government, like those of 45 other states, funds a farm-to-school program encouraging cafeterias to buy their food from local sources. U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) wants to help; she recently introduced the Eat Local Foods Act (HR 5806) to assist schools in providing local foods in school lunches. From Michelle Obama’s White House garden to grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, an agenda has emerged to give local foods more prominence on our dinner plates. Interestingly, no agricultural economist has informed the public that a key claim of local-food advocates — that local-food purchases enhance the local economy — violates the core economic principles taught in every introductory economics class. Until now.
A major flaw in the case for buying local is that it is at odds with the principle of comparative advantage. This principle, which economists have understood for almost 200 years, is one of the main reasons that the vast majority of economists believe in free trade. Free trade, whether across city, state, or national boundaries, causes people to produce the goods or services for which they have a comparative advantage and, thus, makes virtually everyone wealthier. Princeton University economist Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to the economics of international trade, called comparative advantage “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” because so many non-economists deny it and are unwilling to understand it. But if people understood comparative advantage, much of the impetus for buying local foods would disappear.
When the tomatoes are ripe and the price is right, we, the two authors, enjoy local food. In fact, we grow vegetables in our own backyards. But, according to some bestselling authors, daytime talk show hosts, celebrity chefs, and the U.S. government, we aren’t growing and buying enough. These groups have offered a host of economic arguments to promote the sale of local food — arguments that are fundamentally wrong.
The piece goes on to dissect various arguments in favor of local. It takes on the idea that local buying is good for the economy first:
Tom Vilsack, the current Secretary of Agriculture, stated, “In a perfect world, everything that was sold, everything that was purchased and consumed would be local, so the economy would receive the benefit of that.” Apparently Vilsack believes that we’d be richer if we made our own shoes, iPods, and corn. Adam Smith and David Ricardo must be rolling in their graves.
Local food is generally more expensive than non-local food of the same quality. If that were not so, there would be no need to exhort people to “buy local.” However, we are told that spending a dollar for a locally produced tomato keeps the dollar circulating locally, stimulating the local economy. But, if local and non-local foods are of the same quality, but local goods are more expensive, then buying local food is like burning dollar bills — dollar bills that could have been put to more productive use.
The community does not benefit when we pay more for a local tomato instead of an identical non-local tomato because the savings realized from buying non-local tomatoes could have been used to purchase other things. Asking us to purchase local food is asking us to give up things we otherwise could have enjoyed — the very definition of wealth destruction.
If we, as consumers, require that our food be grown locally, we cause the food not to be grown in the most productive, least-cost location. When the government encourages consumers to pay higher prices for a local product when a lower-cost non-local product of equal quality is readily available, it is asking the community to destroy its wealth because the local farmer cannot compete with non-local farms.
If we really want to help local farmers, we’d be better off giving them a donation equal to our savings from buying non-local food. We would have redistributed our income, but at least we wouldn’t have destroyed wealth.
The authors then point to the absurdity of thinking something is good for the environment due solely to food miles traveled:
The truth is that the energy expended transporting food is relatively unimportant. According to USDA-ERS data, consumers spent $880.7 billion on food in 2006. Only four percent of these expenditures can be attributed to post-farm transportation costs. One recent study indicated that over 80 percent of the global-warming impacts of food consumption occur at the farm, and only ten percent are due to transportation.
After an extensive literature review, other researchers have concluded that “it is currently impossible to state categorically whether or not local food systems emit fewer [greenhouse gasses] than non-local food systems.” Minimizing the use of natural resources entails producing food in the least-cost location, which will not typically be local.
The piece goes on to point out that local is not necessarily fresher or tastier or more nutritious. And that even when it is, these values are not determinative and that we often trade off one value for another.
The piece ends with a call to economics to speak up:
The local-food movement enjoys broad, fervent support, and politicians have hopped on the bandwagon, but that only makes it all the more important to eschew political correctness and critically evaluate the consequences of local-food policies. Economists are a diverse bunch, but we have a few core principles, two of which are that there is a balance of payments and that there are gains from trade. These universal principles are as timeless as the law of gravity. If politicians and activists proposed to suspend belief in gravity, physicists would not cower. They would resolutely defend reality. So should we.
Unfortunately all across the country, one finds university after university where local is being mindlessly advocated, with unsubstantiated claims being made of all kinds of substantive benefits. Alas, those who know better see few upsides to speaking out. Even the ag economist who sent it on to us preferred not to be associated with these sentiments, although he clearly believes them to be accurate. But if one ever needs a job in academia or a grant, one is better off being associated with trendy ideology than good economics. That is bad not only for clear thinking but for the future of our country.
Since we published Never Tell Me The Odds: One Man, One Disease, One Battle, many industry members have been kind enough to inquire how the Pundit Poppa is doing and how the whole family is holding up. We are appreciative of every inquiry and thankful for so many useful and supportive missives.
My father’s cancer is considered inoperable unless the tumor was to shrink substantially. So the specific medical answer to what are we doing is that we have undertaken chemotherapy and have been fortunate to do so with the advice of Pundit readers such as Virginia Morton of Tallman Family Farms, who sent us her Tips on Chemotherapy.
Since there is no known cure for pancreatic cancer, our chemotherapy is best understood as an effort to move my father out on the “long tail” of the statistical curb of survival. This doesn’t mean we don’t seek a cure; it means a change in the way we think about a cure. After all, if one can keep pushing oneself out on the curve by 30 days at a time, one lives forever. Put another way, the goal is to live long enough for someone to discover a cure.
Ray Kurzweil — whose diet book we wrote about years ago in sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, in a piece called The Ten Percent Solution — says we all should be taking great care of our health because in the not-so-distant future they will inject us each with nanobots that will repair our ills, and this synergy of man and machine will help us live forever.
Our focus on the long tail came about due to a letter from a Pundit reader. He got us thinking about the long tail by sending us an attachment with an article by a prominent scientist:
My thoughts are with your father and your family. A close friend of mine sent me the above attachment. It helped me put things into perspective. I hope it helps you too. By the way, my close friend was diagnosed with cancer back in 2006. He is alive today enjoying life.
— Peter F. Hochschild
Cal Pine Distributors, LP
We are, of course, glad for Peter’s friend and most appreciative for the piece he sent. He sent us an article titled, The Median Isn’t the Message by Stephen Jay Gould, who had been a Harvard-based paleontologist and evolutionary biologist.
The inspiring part of the story is that Professor Gould was diagnosed at age 40 with abdominal mesothelioma. The research at the time indicated a median mortality of only eight months after diagnosis. In fact, Professor Gould lived 20 years after his diagnosis and was in good health for most of that, good enough to write his 1,342-page synthesis of his theories: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. He ultimately died of what was believed to be an unrelated cancer.
The more important part of this article is that it provides guidance — to cancer patients and everyone else — as to how to think about statistics:
This is a personal story of statistics, properly interpreted, as profoundly nurturant and life-giving. It declares holy war on the downgrading of intellect by telling a small story about the utility of dry, academic knowledge about science. Heart and head are focal points of one body, one personality.
In July 1982, I learned that I was suffering from abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and serious cancer usually associated with exposure to asbestos…
…The literature couldn’t have been more brutally clear: mesothelioma is incurable, with a median mortality of only eight months after discovery…
If a little learning could ever be a dangerous thing, I had encountered a classic example. Attitude clearly matters in fighting cancer. We don’t know why (from my old-style materialistic perspective, I suspect that mental states feed back upon the immune system). But match people with the same cancer for age, class, health, socioeconomic status, and, in general, those with positive attitudes, with a strong will and purpose for living, with commitment to struggle, with an active response to aiding their own treatment and not just a passive acceptance of anything doctors say, tend to live longer.
A few months later I asked Sir Peter Medawar, my personal scientific guru and a Nobelist in immunology, what the best prescription for success against cancer might be. “A sanguine personality,” he replied. Fortunately (since one can’t reconstruct oneself at short notice and for a definite purpose), I am, if anything, even-tempered and confident in just this manner.
Hence the dilemma for humane doctors: since attitude matters so critically, should such a somber conclusion be advertised, especially since few people have sufficient understanding of statistics to evaluate what the statements really mean? From years of experience with the small-scale evolution of Bahamian land snails treated quantitatively, I have developed this technical knowledge -- and I am convinced that it played a major role in saving my life. Knowledge is indeed power, in Bacon’s proverb.
The problem may be briefly stated: What does “median mortality of eight months” signify in our vernacular? I suspect that most people, without training in statistics, would read such a statement as “I will probably be dead in eight months” — the very conclusion that must be avoided, since it isn’t so, and since attitude matters so much.
I was not, of course, overjoyed, but I didn’t read the statement in this vernacular way either. My technical training enjoined a different perspective on “eight months median mortality.”
When I learned about the eight-month median, my first intellectual reaction was: fine, half the people will live longer; now what are my chances of being in that half. I read for a furious and nervous hour and concluded, with relief: damned good. I possessed every one of the characteristics conferring a probability of longer life: I was young; my disease had been recognized in a relatively early stage; I would receive the nation’s best medical treatment; I had the world to live for; I knew how to read the data properly and not despair.
Another technical point then added even more solace. I immediately recognized that the distribution of variation about the eight-month median would almost surely be what statisticians call “right skewed.” (In a symmetrical distribution, the profile of variation to the left of the central tendency is a mirror image of variation to the right. In skewed distributions, variation to one side of the central tendency is more stretched out — left skewed if extended to the left, right skewed if stretched out to the right.)
The distribution of variation had to be right skewed, I reasoned. After all, the left of the distribution contains an irrevocable lower boundary of zero (since mesothelioma can only be identified at death or before). Thus, there isn’t much room for the distribution’s lower (or left) half — it must be scrunched up between zero and eight months. But the upper (or right) half can extend out for years and years, even if nobody ultimately survives. The distribution must be right skewed, and I needed to know how long the extended tail ran — for I had already concluded that my favorable profile made me a good candidate for that part of the curve.
The distribution was indeed, strongly right skewed, with a long tail (however small) that extended for several years above the eight month median. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t be in that small tail, and I breathed a very long sigh of relief. My technical knowledge had helped. I had read the graph correctly. I had asked the right question and found the answers. I had obtained, in all probability, the most precious of all possible gifts in the circumstances — substantial time. I didn’t have to stop and immediately follow Isaiah’s injunction to Hezekiah — set thine house in order for thou shalt die, and not live. I would have time to think, to plan, and to fight.
One final point about statistical distributions. They apply only to a prescribed set of circumstances — in this case to survival with mesothelioma under conventional modes of treatment. If circumstances change, the distribution may alter. I was placed on an experimental protocol of treatment and, if fortune holds, will be in the first cohort of a new distribution with high median and a right tail extending to death by natural causes at advanced old age.
It is an invaluable piece and anyone being given a life expectancy ought to read the whole thing.
Some of the things Stephen Jay Gould mentioned are issues we have discussed publically in pieces such as Dr. Sloan Misses The Point: A Fighting Spirit Is Vital In Overcoming Illness and Pundit’s Mailbag — Fighting Spirit And The Challenge To Live.
We have also wrestled with other questions Professor Gould raised, such as how much truth-telling a doctor ought to do. In our initial piece, we lashed out in anger at my father’s primary care physician who held back on giving us the diagnosis so we could enjoy the weekend. We said “…it wasn’t her information to conceal.”
Yet, perhaps we were too hasty. Later on we had an exchange with Marion Nestle, the well known author and academic whose exchanges with the Pundit we have highlighted here, here, here, and here. Marion was kind enough to send a note of good wishes:
I’m so sorry to hear this about your father. It’s wonderful that you care about him so much and that must mean a lot to him. Take comfort in that, if you can. Courage! And all my best wishes.
Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development
New York University
I responded to this noted expert on nutrition by pointing out the many odd nutritional therapies people had been sending us. Marion, though, responded with a focus on people’s emotional needs, she said: “I think people need to feel hope when confronting mortality, and if herbal teas will do that, I’m not one to object. Courage!”
Indeed, when asked about whether it would be OK for my father to exercise, one of my father’s doctors responded by saying, “Absolutely, as much as you are able. In fact, exercise is very good as the tumor draws nutrients from your body, and if you can build muscle mass, the nutrients go to build the muscle and are not available to the tumor.”
Now I sat silently as the doctor said this. Exercise is undoubtedly a good thing for my father and losing muscle mass can be a big problem for cancer patients, but I found this theory of tumor nutrition idiosyncratic to say the least. Yet I decided to stay silent and was glad I did as it transformed my father’s attitude. He began an exercise program and felt that between exercise and the chemotherapy he would yet beat this cancer. He would run on the treadmill and loudly sing: “Mr. Tumor, what do you want for breakfast today? What do you want for lunch? What do you want for dinner? Sorry, we are not serving! The restaurant is closed!”
Other doctors have since been more moderate in their claims for exercise and, as time goes by, my father is finding it more challenging to exercise, but I understand why when I told Marion Nestle this story she responded by saying that I was smart to keep my mouth shut and that my father was lucky to have a doctor that smart.
Of course, my father is very smart and knows how to use the Internet, so any obfuscation is going to be short-lived.
So while we handle the medical stuff, my focus on keeping my father’s fighting spirit raging is to provide him with reminders of how much he has to fight for.
In mid-March, I celebrated my 50th birthday and my parents wanted to treat for a big birthday party. My father’s 75th birthday will, God willing, come in June, so I suggested to my mother that we transform this party into a roast/toast, tribute and early birthday for my father.
Blast from the Past: Roz and Mike Prevor attended Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School Class of 1954 prom, held at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.
Although it was all put together last minute, we still had 200 people for a sit down dinner at my house and 250 for cocktails. It was all themed around the 1950’s and for the sit down dinner, we recreated the Copacabana of 1954, where my parents had their high school prom.
It was, of course, all family and friends. We only invited people who had some special connection with my father. So we were so appreciative that some of our friends from the produce industry managed to be there: Jim Carr, President of the Produce Reporter Company, and his wife, Laura; Michael Cutler, President of Michael Cutler Company, and his wife, Sheila; Alan Siger, President of Consumers Produce; Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk, President of Seald-Sweet, and her husband, Mark; and Tom Stenzel, President of United Fresh Produce Association.
Barney Mayrsohn and Mike Prevor
It was also a special treat that my father’s long ago partner, Barney Mayrsohn, now CEO of Mayrsohn International Trading Company, was there to toast my dad.
Jim Carr, Jan Fleming, Tim Fleming, Tom Stenzel
and Alan Siger
The icing on the cake, though, was when Tim and Jan Fleming made the trip down from Chicago. We’ve mentioned Jan’s own health travails here, here, here and here. The world works in mysterious ways, and it has come to pass that my father and Jan Fleming are on the precise same chemo regimen and even receive chemo on the same day. So, though the connection between our family companies went back a long way and, of course, Jan’s father, Bob Strube, was our first columnist in PRODUCE BUSINESS, a new and special kind of connection has been established in this time of trial.
Planning a party when the star is sick is always nerve-wracking. What if my father had been having a bad day and couldn’t come? These are always worries.
In the end though, my family and I thought it important that while we have life, we ought to live, and we wanted to show my father that many people, from around the world and back from each phase of his life — high school, college, business, family, friends — cared about him and wanted to cheer him on.
We did that and, as Stephen Jay Gould would have predicted, we saw my father and mother draw strength from that infusion of love.
We have many powerful medicines, none more powerful than the force of true love.
It is our efforts to give my father that medicine that best explains what we are doing now. Many thanks to all those who have helped in that task.
If you wish to send my father a note, you may do so here.
If you have ideas or contacts for medical treatment, please send me a note here.
Marc Fisher wrote a fantastic piece for The Washington Post, titled, In Tunisia, act of one fruit vendor unleashes wave of revolution through Arab world:
SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA — On the evening before Mohammed Bouazizi lit a fire that would burn across the Arab world, the young fruit vendor told his mother that the oranges, dates and apples he had to sell were the best he’d ever seen. “With this fruit,” he said, “I can buy some gifts for you. Tomorrow will be a good day.”
For years, Bouazizi had told his mother stories of corruption at the fruit market, where vendors gathered under a cluster of ficus trees on the main street of this scruffy town, not far from Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches. Arrogant police officers treated the market as their personal picnic grounds, taking bagfuls of fruit without so much as a nod toward payment. The cops took visible pleasure in subjecting the vendors to one indignity after another — fining them, confiscating their scales, even ordering them to carry their stolen fruit to the cops’ cars.
Before dawn on Friday, Dec. 17, as Bouazizi pulled his cart along the narrow, rutted stone road toward the market, two police officers blocked his path and tried to take his fruit. Bouazizi’s uncle rushed to help his 26-year-old nephew, persuading the officers to let the rugged-looking young man complete his one-mile trek.
The uncle visited the chief of police and asked him for help. The chief called in a policewoman who had stopped Bouazizi, Fedya Hamdi, and told her to let the boy work.
Hamdi, outraged by the appeal to her boss, returned to the market. She took a basket of Bouazizi’s apples and put it in her car. Then she started loading a second basket. This time, according to Alladin Badri, who worked the next cart over, Bouazizi tried to block the officer.
“She pushed Mohammed and hit him with her baton,” Badri said.
Hamdi reached for Bouazizi’s scale, and again he tried to stop her.
Hamdi and two other officers pushed Bouazizi to the ground and grabbed the scale. Then she slapped Bouazizi in the face in front of about 50 witnesses.
Bouazizi wept with shame.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he cried, according to vendors and customers who were there. “I’m a simple person, and I just want to work.”
Revolutions are explosions of frustration and rage that build over time, sometimes over decades. Although their political roots are deep, it is often a single spark that ignites them — an assassination, perhaps, or one selfless act of defiance.
In Tunisia, an unusually cosmopolitan Arab country with a high rate of college attendance, residents watched for 23 years as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship became a grating daily insult. From Tunis — the whitewashed, low-rise capital with a tropical, colonial feel — to the endless stretches of olive and date trees in the sparsely populated countryside, the complaints were uniform: It had gotten so you couldn’t get a job without some connection to Ben Ali’s family or party. The secret police kept close tabs on ordinary Tunisians. And the uniformed police took to demanding graft with brazen abandon.
Still, the popular rebellion that started here and spread like a virus to Egypt, Libya and the Persian Gulf states, and now to Yemen and Syria, was anything but preordained. The contagion, carried by ordinary people rather than politicians or armies, hits each country in a different and uncontrollable way, but with common characteristics — Friday demonstrations, Facebook connections, and alliances across religious, class and tribal lines. This wave of change happened because aging dictators grew cocky and distant from the people they once courted, because the new social media that the secret police didn’t quite understand reached a critical mass of people, and because, in a rural town where respect is more valued than money, Mohammed Bouazizi was humiliated in front of his friends.
After the slap, Bouazizi went to city hall and demanded to see an official. No, a clerk replied. Go home. Forget about it.
Bouazizi returned to the market and told his fellow vendors he would let the world know how unfairly they were being treated, how corrupt the system was.
He would set himself ablaze.
“We thought he was just talking,” said Hassan Tili, another vendor.
A short while later, the vendors heard shouts from a couple of blocks away. Without another word to anyone, Bouazizi had positioned himself in front of the municipal building, poured paint thinner over his body and lit himself aflame.
The fire burned and burned. People ran inside and grabbed a fire extinguisher, but it was empty. They called for police, but no one came. Only an hour and a half after Bouazizi lit the match did an ambulance arrive.
Manoubya Bouazizi said her son’s decision “was spontaneous, from the humiliation.” Her clear blue eyes welled as her husband placed at her feet a small clay pot filled with a few white-hot pieces of charcoal, their only defense against a cold, raw, rain-swept day. The Bouazizi family has no money, no car, no electricity, but it was not poverty that made her son sacrifice himself, she said. It was his quest for dignity.
Ben Ali visited Mohammed Bouazizi in the hospital, along with a camera crew. The president made a show of handing Manoubya a check for 10,000 dinars (about $14,000). But the mother said Ben Ali’s staffers took the check back after the cameramen were escorted from the room. “I never got any of it,” she said.
Three weeks after he set himself on fire, Bouazizi died in the burn unit.
We’ve previously mentioned here that it was a fruit vendor who set off the revolution now rolling through the Arab world.
We wish the fruit vendors of Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world all the best and pray that the revolution afoot should be resolved with minimum bloodshed and that the next governments should be less corrupt and more generous with the people.
Alas, we fear an excess of exuberance may not be justified in this case. We are reminded of the story of Daniel O’Connell, an Irish hero and politician who was to become, in 1841, the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin since the reign of King James.
It is said that he was running for office and so traveling around the country-side where he came upon a work crew busting rocks. It is said that one of the workers was so overcome by O’Connell’s presence that he began praising O’Connell and all he would do for the country. O’Connell interrupted the laborer: “Calm yourself,” said O’Connell, “Whether I win or whether I lose, you will still be breaking rocks.”
The revolutions in the Arab world raise such hopes for the citizenry, weary of oppression, and for the whole world, which yearns for the Arab world to move toward modernity.
Yet there is little indication that the next rulers will be particularly democratic. One fears they will extract from the poor fruit vendors just as much in bribes and just as much in dignity.
The Jr. Pundits both have allergies to peanuts so it brought special attention when we saw CNN had ran a piece titled, Parents Picket Girl with Peanut Allergy, Ask Her to Withdraw from School:
A student at Edgewater Elementary School in Volusia County, Florida, is being asked to withdraw from the school by her classmates’ parents.
The student has a life-threatening peanut allergy and, as a result, her classmates are asked to make accommodations to ensure her safety. Some parents of children at the school say the extra steps their children are taking to ensure the girl’s health, such as washing their hands or rinsing out their mouths, are taking away from their own children’s learning. Meanwhile, the school is standing by its decision to make accommodations for the student.
Part of the issue here is that this school seems to be doing some very over-the-top things to deal with a peanut allergy. Although each case is different and we don’t have any details about this little girl, typically the key issue is preventing the child from eating peanuts or products made with peanuts. Even smearing peanut butter on the arm of a kid with peanut allergies won’t typically cause a lethal reaction.
So policies such as requiring children to rinse out their mouths seems like overkill. Some schools are now peanut-free; others will declare certain class rooms to be peanut-free; others have peanut free tables at lunch, and still others institute policies to prohibit young children from sharing food.
Our personal experience has been that the biggest issues are other parents who don’t know the situation and might bring into school Peanut M&Ms or a cookie made with peanut butter, not knowing or forgetting that some of the children have peanut allergies.
The Pundit family was torn… on the one hand, we wanted our children safe, yet we also feared that a “peanut-free school” would create a false sense of safety for the Jr. Pundits. After all, it is not a peanut-free world.
So we are pleased that the Jr. Pundits, though only 9 and 7 years of age, won’t eat anything without grilling the relevant adult. It is a pleasure to hear them interrogate the maître d’ during brunch at a fancy hotel and their teacher during the class party. We think we are helping them become self-sufficient by teaching them to protect themselves rather than assuming the school will protect them.
Still, we find the response of the parents at this school troubling. The rules seem to consist of leaving bagged lunches outside the classroom, having the students wash their hands and rinse their mouths after they eat. These rules may not all be necessary, but they hardly seem onerous and unlikely to detract from anyone’s education.
We could make the case that these types of experiences can be made into important teaching moments. Children not interested at all in science will suddenly become interested when it is about their classmate. So it seems like this could be a great time to teach about allergies and, for that matter, about peanuts.
Beyond academics, though, parents want their children to be good people. What kind of lesson are these parents teaching their children when they object so strenuously to helping a six-year-old first grade girl?
The school administrators claim they are obligated by Federal law to treat the peanut allergy as a disability and make reasonable accommodations for the child. That may be true but shouldn’t be necessary.
We took the Jr. Pundits to the movies recently and we arrived early so the boys were able to get their favorite seats, dead center in the first elevated row. Right in front of them is wheelchair seating and then there are a few rows on the floor in front of that.
In any case, the theater sold out and we wound up having a couple seats on each side of the Pundit family. When a family of four asked if we would mind moving over so they could sit together the boys resisted. They had carefully counted the seats to make sure they were in the exact middle. Much to the boy’s chagrin, the Pundit intervened and insisted we all move over.
We were not, of course, obligated to move legally, nor was there any theater policy that required us to do so. It is not even certain that etiquette required such a move. After all, these people were simply going to suffer the consequence of their own actions — arriving last minute at the theater.
Still, we moved over. And we made the boys move, despite their objections, mostly because we hope they will grow up as people with a heart, with some empathy for others. The small sacrifice of moving over two seats enabled a family to be together, and we hope the children will come to appreciate that giving in this small way is a rewarding feeling. We hope one day they will realize that the whole world is easier to live in if most people behave this way.
But watching these parents picket and knowing a six-year-old girl has to cross that picket line makes us despair for what kind of world our children will actually wind up living in.
You can see the two CNN reports below: