Pundit Interviews

Pundit Letters

Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610



Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

A+ For United’s Las Vegas Convention Effort; Will New Orleans Be A Winner?

The United Fresh Produce Association Convention and Exposition just held in Las Vegas was, in many ways, a triumph. When it comes to results, there were many profitable and productive meetings held, many exhibitors made connections that will more than pay for their booths, and there was certainly a variety of educational programs sufficient to enlighten anyone interested in being enlightened.

Clearly the Convention Committee and the United Board of Directors and the United staff deserve an A+ for effort. There were two demo centers on the floor and four learning centers on the floor; there were buyer offices on the floor where marquis names such as Kroger, Costco and Target held meetings. It is hard to imagine a group making a more concerted, methodical and thoughtful effort to boost traffic and make their event a success.

So kudos to all involved. Yet we do not think the question of whether a trade show can financially support United’s government affairs efforts is actually settled.

Many of the innovative things that United did, although wise in the circumstances, are also signs of weakness in the trade show business. Every time a new “world’s largest” airplane is launched — the Boeing 747 in its day and, more recently, the Airbus A-380 — the aircraft manufacturers and airlines highlight all the wonderful things they could do with this space. In-the-air salons, work-out rooms, dining halls, bars, etc., have all been suggested. Some of these are tried; as a young boy the Pundit had the opportunity to fly a new Pan Am 747 in which we were brought upstairs to eat dinner in a separate dining room.

Inevitably, though, if the demand exists, those amenities wind up being taken away and replaced by seats that can be sold to paying passengers. So in the trade show business, most “on the floor” amenities — whatever useful purpose they may serve — are there because demand was insufficient to sell that space as trade show booths.

Other initiatives may be successful… that is to say popular… with people but don’t necessarily help the trade show exhibitor — who is the one financially supporting the whole venture.

We were fortunate to be invited to several meetings in the buyer suites on the floor and several buyers shared with us their schedules. They were booked from the moment the floor opened to the moment the show closed in meetings in their offices on the floor. It is, of course, good to have these buyers at the event. This way they can go to dinner with people and attend networking events. And it is good to have them on the floor as opposed to closeted away in a distant hotel suite. However, what the exhibitors need is for these people to be out on the floor visiting booths that have paid for the privilege of selling them.

One buyer showed us his list of appointments and the majority of those he was meeting with were not exhibitors at all.

If these important buyers are in town, available for meetings and attending networking events but not spending much time or any time at all walking the trade show, exhibitors will not find exhibiting valuable. All this is equally true if important buyers are attending seminars, etc.

United has really done an excellent job of integrating the old International Fresh-cut Processors Association into the larger organization. There is comity between the groups and most feel the merger was a big win for United. The one area where it is not clear the merger works, however, is the merging of the two trade shows.

The problem is simple: The exhibitors at the two shows have different audiences. One group was looking to sell equipment, services and some produce items to processors. The other group wanted to sell fresh produce and ancillary items primarily to retailers. That is a gap that is difficult to bridge.

United had been wrestling with the problem of declining retail attendance at its trade show for a generation, finally throwing in the towel around the turn of the century and announcing it would do a show mainly based on science, technology and transportation. Eventually an alliance with FMI in 2003 put United back in the retail show business. That alliance lasted five years.

When that collapsed the excitement of the move to an independent show and the fun of Las Vegas kept things going.

Now, after three years in Las Vegas, United has announced that its 2011 show will be in New Orleans. It will be quite a test.

New Orleans is a traditional convention town and has its charms. Many people haven’t been there in years and the curiosity factor post-hurricane Katrina will be high. The city itself is very anxious to revive its convention business and so will be super-hospitable, and most of the key hotel properties have been recently renovated.

Although the Pundit enjoys the charms of New Orleans — the food, the jazz, the Garden District — and likes the fact that one can walk to the convention center from many of the hotels, many people despise the French Quarter, finding it dirty and a scene of drunken kids and although there is gambling in New Orleans, it is no Las Vegas. Most important, there is no substantial produce community anywhere nearby.

Many exhibitors in Las Vegas told us they and their staff drove in from California. Shipping booths and people will raise expenses.

United is a very strong organization in a way that really matters for an association — its members love it. We have no doubt that many will conclave wherever United may meet and you can be assured the Pundit will be there.

Whether or not the event will get enough retail traffic to make it a worthy investment for exhibitors focused on selling retailers fresh produce is very much an open question.

Even if this doesn’t happen, a glance at all the traceability booths at United in Las Vegas makes one think there may be a market for a show selling technology and equipment, sort of the old United effort merged with IFPA.

Most importantly, Tom Stenzel, President and CEO at United Fresh, has done an excellent job during his tenure of diversifying revenue sources away from the trade show and having companies directly support initiatives they value. This comes in lieu of everyone paying higher dues and for shows leadership of the larger companies when they give specific grants, as C.H. Robinson did to fund United’s Supply Chain Technology & Logistics Program or Bayer CropScience did to fund United’s Center for Global Produce Sustainability.

The truth is that operating a trade show is only marginally related to United’s core purpose of government relations. We need to find other initiatives that will fund a robust United, without relying on a trade show.

That is part of the discussion, of course, when talk of merger between United and PMA is raised.

Problems Persist With PTI

We have been writing about traceability before traceability was cool.

Now the Produce Traceability Initiative seems to be somewhat stuck.

The problem, as we identified in our first piece on the subject, is two-fold:

1) Despite its many advantages, PTI does not actually solve the trade’s traceability problem. Completely aside from the fact that PTI is a case-based system and we sell consumers items outside of the case, it is clear PTI won’t solve the problem on cases. We’ve run before a story sent to us by an industry wholesaler about the reality of traceability and it is worth running again:

Putting in a system to trace product gets more difficult the further down we go in the distribution chain. Stand on the floor on a busy Terminal Market and try and imagine where the product goes after it is sold by the Wholesaler. A customer known as “Ken, the guy with Red truck” pays cash for a pallet of tomatoes. He takes the tomatoes to his garage where the boxes sit on the floor next to cleaning supplies, motor oil, and who know what else.

He and his kids (2 of whom just used the toilet without washing their hands) dump the tomatoes on a dirty tarp to sort them for color. The green ones sit in the garage for a few days to color up during which time one or two rodents snack on tomatoes. When they finally ripen, Ken delivers the tomatoes to some of the finest restaurants in town for all of us to enjoy.

Somehow I don’t think that Ken or even a legitimate small wholesaler or purveyor is interested in investing in a traceability system. They will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. The problem is that the system is only as good as its weakest link, and unless Ken is a part of the system it doesn’t work.

2) The whole process with its elaborate stages was troubling to begin with because it put the grower-shippers ahead of the buyers. This was problematic. The truth is all that had to happen for PTI to become standard was for the buyers who signed onto the initiative to announce on what date they would no longer procure produce that didn’t conform to PTI and then demonstrate they were spending the money to be PTI-compliant themselves. Unfortunately, more than one buyer told this Pundit that they felt compelled to endorse PTI for political reasons. That didn’t mean they were actually going to spend the money to implement it.

In fact, in many organizations, it would be difficult to get the money. How does a Produce VP go before the board and request this money? It is not legally required and it would be difficult to demonstrate a Return On Investment.

Shippers know what is going on. Some have moved ahead… Paramount Citrus was very vocal at United that the company and its sister companies, Paramount Farms and POM Wonderful, were spending the money to become fully PTI-compliant because “it is the right thing to do.” But many, many shippers are holding off, waiting for evidence that the receivers are actually going to do this.

There is lots of talk of postponing the implementation date, perhaps asking shippers to be compliant three months before the receivers, although others point out that the trade spent a year deciding this was the best course — and nothing has changed to change that decision.

It is easy to see this situation as one simply requiring leadership to insist on the trade seeing through its plan.

But it is also true that this whole episode has revealed a tremendous flaw in the way our associations are interacting with the membership.

It wasn’t too long ago that the associations simply didn’t have the depth of staff and expertise they have today. So, at that time, it was necessary for association staffs to ask the trade what they wanted to do about a problem.

Now the associations have a lot of expertise, so they often lay out the solution all on their own.

Gary Fleming, then of PMA, practically laid out the whole PTI before the initiative existed. Look at these pieces he wrote for the Pundit:

Guest Pundit — Traceability And The Need For A Common Language

Guest Pundit — Pairing The Global Language With Technology

Guest Pundit: Traceability — A Forgotten Piece Of Food Safety

The problem with this model is it becomes difficult for individual companies to bring out their concerns. They just can’t risk having their trading partners identify them as recalcitrant on food safety or traceability.

They certainly can’t risk being left out on press releases endorsing initiatives that their associations are praising.

The bottom line is that it is not a condition of membership in any produce trade association that a company should have a PTI-complaint traceability system… which means that, believe it or not, PMA, United and CPMA are actually supposed to represent those opposed to PTI or unwilling to implement it as much as those who elect to implement it.

This issue is different than setting a standard for PLU codes. The industry can lay out that type of standard, and if someone doesn’t want to participate, they may find themselves outside the flow of commerce, but nobody thinks of that company as bad.

Here, there is an implication that companies choosing not to participate are bad companies, that they “cheap out” on food safety-related issues and don’t care if people get sick… or worse. That image may not compel the companies to participate, but it may compel them to pretend to participate. That may be the worst of all worlds.

FDA’s Michael Taylor Preaches ‘Scale Appropriate’ Food Safety Standards, Code Words For Exempting Small Farmers And Organics

Michael Taylor, the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods, addressed a general session audience at the United Fresh Produce Association Convention in Las Vegas.

Pundit readers might be familiar with Mr. Taylor, as we ran his extensive testimony to Congress when he was Research Professor at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in an article titled: FDA Gets Blueprint Blueprint For Future, Incentive Change Might Lead To Safer Food.

Mr. Taylor is something of a hero to folks in the “food safety community.” We explained why back in 2007, when we wrote a piece titled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Consumer Has Shared Responsibility In Food Safety, which featured a letter from Bardin Bengard, President of Bengard Ranches. The letter pointed out, correctly, that when it comes to food safety: “There is no substitute for consumers doing their part by looking at the product and using proper methods of preparation.”

We responded by saying that though this point was true, it wouldn’t matter in the end and the reason was Michael Taylor:

…as sympathetic as we are to the notion that the industry is wise to urge all sectors to do their part, we have a sense that the industry is standing athwart history on this one.

If consumer participation in food safety could be expected or mandated, then E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburger would not be a beef industry issue. It would always be the consumers or the restaurant’s fault for improperly cooking meat if anyone got sick.

Yet in the years following the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, there was a clear shift away from this perspective. In mid-1994 a man named Michael Taylor was appointed as Chief of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Shortly thereafter, on September 29, 1994, Taylor said that the USDA would from that date forward regard E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef as an “adulterant,” because the epidemiological evidence showed that in the hands of consumers it was ”ordinarily injurious to health” — thus it was an adulterant that should never, ever be present in the product.

In mid-October, 1994, Taylor announced plans to launch a nationwide sampling of ground beef to assess how much E. coli O157:H7 was in the marketplace. Five thousand samples would be taken during the year from supermarkets and meat processing plants “to set an example and stimulate companies to put in preventive measures.”

A positive result would prompt product recalls of the entire affected lot, effectively removing it from any possibility of sale — even though no one had gotten sick and consumers and restaurants could make the hamburger 100% safe just by thoroughly cooking it.

So even where there is a kill step, the rule has become that it is unacceptable to sell product that is dangerous.

Certainly this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t urge consumers and restaurants to do all kinds of things to keep food safe. Certainly we can continue to preach from the hymnal of shared responsibility.

Yet, at least on our fresh-cut product, we really have to ignore all that when it comes to our production specs.

And if down the road bulk produce starts causing people to get sick, don’t expect a “blame the consumer” strategy to carry much weight with regulators or the consuming public.

Although those on the Left have doubts about Michael Taylor — his bio is deemed tarnished by some as he once worked for Monsanto, which makes him highly suspicious, if not certifiably evil, to a certain group of people — his declaration of E. coli 0157:H7 as an adulterant in ground beef made him the pivotal person in shifting to an absolute industry responsibility standard in food safety and led many to cheer when he was appointed to this newly created FDA position 2009.

His speech at United was generally unexceptional. He called for all the things the produce industry associations have already endorsed: national food safety standards, applicable to imports, risk-based and sensitive to regional variations.

He called for dialogue, partnership and participation. He got nice applause.

Unfortunately, unless you are a policy wonk following the nuance of inside-the-beltway politics, you probably didn’t realize that he was also using a DC code word for “let’s exempt certain competitors from food safety standards we demand of others.” That code phrase is “scale appropriate.”

He said it many times, tried to express it as a concept still searching for a definition, and he asked for help in defining what it means.

Well, it is an odd thing to endorse a concept you don’t know the meaning of, and we would say that this tortured quest for understanding is somewhat disingenuous, because it can only mean one thing.

“Scale appropriate” is a way of saying that in considering what food safety standards to apply, one is going to think of something other than food safety.

If one is serious about raising food safety standards, this is a triumph of politics over science.

Everyone accepts that “one size fits all” food safety standards make no sense. So if there is a relevant difference, variable standards not only make sense, but are required. For example, imagine there is a greenhouse that uses municipal water — that is to say fully potable drinking water that is already constantly tested by a municipal water system. To require that greenhouse to test that water at source, the way we might require someone using river water or well water to do, would be unfair, unnecessary, redundant and needlessly burdensome.

“Scale-appropriate” is an oxymoron when applied to food safety because there is nothing in the scale of the operation that impacts on food safety. It is a political term in which, depending on your point of view, you can say either that those who want food safety legislation are proposing to get it by buying off the votes of the numerically large number of small growers with a scientifically unmerited exemption or that the Obama administration doesn’t want to annoy a politically important part of their coalition, the organic community.

All the arguments for exempting small growers from food safety regulations that apply to large growers are either not justified by science or logic or not related to food safety.

Typically advocates of such an exemption make one theoretical claim and one statistical claim:

The theoretical argument is that “Joe, the small farmer, will not have food safety problems because he cares and won’t sell, for example, crop that has had an animal intrusion in the field and won’t allow, for example, a worker with a bad cold to work harvesting.”

We have no reason to think small farmers any more or less ethical than large farmers, but their situation is very different and it rebounds exactly the opposite of this assertion.

For a large agribusiness, policies are typically set and enforced dispassionately. The harvest chief, who sees pigs or cows in a field and pulls out his harvesting crews and machinery, is typically not impacted financially by that decision. Equally, the decision to send an employee home is not going to impact the income of the person making that decision.

In contrast, the small farmer is unlikely to be dispassionate about such a decision. This land is his livelihood and if he sees a pig run through it, his inclination is typically not to bankrupt himself by deciding not to harvest that year’s crop. Nor, when all hands are needed, is he likely to want to start sending scarce workers home because someone has a cold.

The statistical argument is even weaker than the theoretical one. Advocates for exemptions for small growers from food safety standards will claim that the outbreaks are almost never traced back to small growers, only large ones. This is a statistical quirk. Most people who get sick in food safety outbreaks are never identified to the authorities; they get a stomach ache and then get better. This means that a typical outbreak has very few known sick people.

The problem in the statistics thus becomes obvious. If the sale of a few million servings of a produce item by a giant producer only produces an outbreak with a couple hundred known illnesses, a small grower — if his product is contaminated to the precise same percentage as the large grower — will produce too few known illnesses to ever be traced back.

Typically outbreaks are identified because the sick people answer survey questions differently than a base study of healthy people. So if, typically, 10% of the population has eaten raw spinach within the past 72 hours and a group of sick people show that 99% of them had eaten spinach within the 72 hour period, that is a strong indication that they are sick due to spinach or something associated with spinach — say bacon bits. But you need a critical mass of people sick to answer the survey and contrast with the control survey. If you only have one sick person, the survey isn’t that helpful.

Everything we know about food safety gives us reason to think food safety issues affect producers large and small. If Michael Taylor and the administration want a “scale appropriate” exemption for small growers, it is because they have abandoned honesty about food safety in a quest to get the authority they yearn to give government.

Every School Needs A Salad Bar AND A Commitment To Operating It Safely

It is said that no good deed goes unpunished, and the initiative of the United Fresh Foundation to place “A Salad Bar in Every School” is most emphatically a good deed.

The industry is behind the initiative virtually 100% because, unlike the proposals for a generic promotion program, this plan is a specific proposal that can be done incrementally and that can be shown to increase produce sales.

We still need better research to know whether and to what degree it actually increases consumption. With school feeding programs it is one thing to get it on the menu, another thing entirely to get it consumed. Good studies are also needed to assess whether eating a salad at lunch is habit-forming and thus increases the likelihood of consumption of a salad at dinner or whether it makes consumption at other day-parts less likely.

Still, the bottom line is so dramatic: a school that bought no broccoli florets suddenly becomes a customer; students who ate a hot dog or bologna sandwich for lunch are now getting access to some healthy produce. It seems highly likely that this is a win for the industry, a win for public health and a win for the children.

Which is why, as an industry, we need to be proactive to prevent a foodborne illness from bringing the whole program to a catastrophic halt.

If you attended The United Fresh Produce Executive Development Program at Cornell University, you were given a pass to the student dining hall in the basement of the building where the program was held so that attendees could get lunch. It was a terrific venue showing the enormous variety of healthy options available to today’s college kids. As you walked in the hall, the hot food was on the left and included things such as a baked potato bar and a grill. On the right was a really wonderful “make your own” salad option where students could select the ingredients for their salad. It is notable however that though these college students could select any item on the salad bar, they couldn’t touch. All the ingredients were put together by gloved foodservice workers who assured things were kept sanitary.

It is the trend all over. Supermarkets have pulled out a lot of salad bars but the new ones are often attended. Publix, in its new Greenwise division, features a wonderful “make your own salad” bar — but, once again, the customers can point: “I want some olives, a little more carrots please, skip the hot peppers” — but they can’t touch. That is reserved for foodservice workers wearing gloves.

These gloved workers are expensive; Cornell and Publix felt they needed to put them in for sanitary reasons.

The research available is sketchy, but indicates there is cause for concern regarding salad bars and foodborne illness. A study conducted by Katherine Diaz-Knauf, Erica Favil, Daisy Vargas and Robert Sommer from the UC Davis Center for Consumer Research published in the Journal of College & University Foodservice found the following:

“…direct consumer access may contribute to health-related problems resulting from eating contaminated foods. Users of a salad and burrito bar in a university restaurant were observed to identify behavioral and equipment-related problems. Findings show that there is the potential for health related problems resulting from spillage and touching food.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote up another UC Davis Consumer Research Center study:

Salad bars can be the source of potential public health problems, according to a recent study of the popular restaurant phenomenon by the UC Davis Consumer Research Center.

These self-service medleys of cold vegetables and fruit were surveyed in 40 restaurants throughout Northern California, and more than 370 customers were observed in the process of filling their plates.

The report found that there were numerous lapses in sanitation practices and opportunities for accidental contamination.

The UC Davis research team of Susan Carstens and Robert Sommer stated that frequent problems included “people touching the food with their hands, sampling salad dressings with their fingers, eating from plates while in line and returning to the salad bar with used utensils and plates.”

Inadequate serving equipment was commonplace and often led to food overflowing from containers or falling off plates.

“This led to people licking their fingers or putting food back (with their hands),” the report stated.

The authors suggest that better restaurant supervision and more signs dictating common health practices might help reduce the problems. However, there was some realization that consumers with poor food-handling practices in the home are unlikely to modify their behavior in restaurants.

“A lot of people don’t realize that foods such as cherry tomatoes and celery sticks, which are ‘finger foods’ at home, aren’t necessarily to be eaten that way in a restaurant,” Sommer stated.

No less a trio than food safety authorities, Craig W. Hedberg, PhD; Kristine L. MacDonald, MD, MPH; Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH — all then of the Minnesota Department of Health — specifically mentioned the “widespread availability of salad bars” as having “increased the potential for exposure to a wide variety of enteric pathogens, both foreign and domestic.”

Bill Marler, the noted plaintiff’s attorney specializing in foodborne illnesses cases has declared “I don’t go to salad bars” and points out that he has handled many foodborne illness cases involving salad bars over the years:

When I first heard about an E. coli outbreak tied to a buffet-restaurant, I must admit I was not too surprised — foodborne illness outbreaks certainly have been tied to buffets and salad bars over the years. A few cases we have done:

E. coli
China Buffet
Finley School District
Gold Coast Produce
King Garden
Olive Garden

Brook-Lea Country Club
Golden Corral
Linh’s Bakery
Old South Restaurant
Western Sizzlin’
Wyndham Anatole Hotel

In investigating Emerging Foodborne Diseases, a study by S.F. Altekruse, M.L. Cohen, and D.L. Swerdlow of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mentioned human behavioral changes as a key factor: “Fast-food restaurants and salad bars were rare 50 years ago but are primary sites for food consumption in today’s fast-paced society”

And salad bars were the site for the first known bioterrorism attack in the United States in what came to be known as the 1984 Rajneeshee Bioterror Attack:

The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack was the food poisoning of more than 750 individuals in The Dalles, Oregon, United States through the deliberate contamination of salad bars at ten local restaurants with salmonella. A leading group of followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho) had hoped to incapacitate the voting population of the city so that their own candidates would win the 1984 Wasco County elections. The incident was the first bioterrorism attack in the United States, and the single largest bioterrorist attack in United States history. The attack is one of only two confirmed terrorist uses of biological weapons to harm humans.

…Seven hundred and fifty-one people contracted salmonellosis as a result of the attack, of whom 45 were hospitalized. There were no fatalities. …

Now, despite all this, any rational analysis would have to say the food safety problems posed by salad bars are minimal. There are aesthetic issues… many salad bars are simply unsanitary and people, especially children, do all kinds of gross things at salad bars.

That doesn’t mean there is a significant food safety problem — but then again, viewed as a percentage of servings sold, we have never had significant food safety problems in produce — and that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a major issue.

Salad bar food safety issues also have the advantage of being local. When a bagged salad is indicated, everyone wonders if they are about to get sick because they ate some bagged salad. If a foodborne illness breaks out due to a salad bar — it is due to a particular salad bar and those who didn’t eat there probably don’t worry — although they may hesitate next time there is a salad bar option.

It is also true that even if there is a food safety issue with salad bars, it may be overridden by the great benefit of having children eat more healthfully.

Still, if even one child is found to fall seriously ill or to, God forbid, die, as a result of eating from a salad bar donated or funded through this United Fresh initiative, we can all imagine the headlines and the report on 60 Minutes.

So the industry should do all it can to make sure these salad bars are used properly, especially since children, who are both more likely to do unsafe things and more vulnerable to foodborne illness, will be the ones eating.

There are various steps that can make salad bars safer. We probably can’t insist on gloved foodservice attendants as most schools just don’t have those budgets, but the National Restaurant Association has a four-step recommendation for How To Keep Salad Bars Safe:

A salad bar can be a valuable addition to a restaurant. It adds versatility to the menu and can even serve as a restaurant’s visual focal point. But operating a safe and effective salad bar or buffet requires a lot of work. Food safety needs to be a main ingredient of any salad bar to prevent foodborne illnesses. A sparkling-clean salad bar featuring fresh products will also win over customers and create good word of mouth. Here are some techniques for keeping your salad bar up to standards.

Section 1: Prep Work
Section 2: Set-Up Procedures
Section 3: Temperature Control
Section 4: Supervision

You can read the whole piece here but we’ll excerpt just the section on supervision:

Keeping a salad bar in tip-top shape requires constant maintenance. Assign an adequate number of employees to supervise the salad bar throughout the shift. Staffers on salad-bar duty should:

• Keep all surface areas clean. Employees should quickly clean up any spills. Staffers should be made aware of the dangers of spreading germs through wiping cloths. Studies have shown that wiping cloths can contain enough foodborne microorganisms to make people sick. To prevent this from happening, store wiping cloths in sanitizing solution at the proper concentration at all times.

• Make sure customers obey safety procedures. Watch children closely, because they’re more apt to reach into a food bin.

• Bring out clean plates and replenish foods properly. Never add freshly prepared food to food already on display. Put out only as much food as will be served in a short period of time to lessen the chance of spoilage and contamination. Use shallow salad bins that need to refilled frequently.

Keeping your salad bar up to standards is essential for your customers’ safety as well as to maintain your restaurant’s high-quality reputation. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation offers products and courses to help train employees in safe food-storage and -handling procedures.

Getting children in the habit of eating salad is such a great idea that some risk is worth taking, but we should be just as interested in making sure that every school knows how to conduct, and commits to conduct, proper food safety procedures on a salad bar as we are in getting them into every school.

Now United staff does speak to schools about safe operation of the equipment before making any donations but that process is informal and, perhaps, not rigorous enough to both keep the children safe down the road and to protect the program in the event of some future problem.

We may want to consider insisting on a more formal agreement before we make a donation. Why couldn’t we partner with the National Restaurant Association to produce a computer-aided training module on salad bar safety and make maintaining a person at each location who has passed this test a condition for receiving a free salad bar?

Another thought — many of the items that cause food safety problems on salad bars are not produce items at all — but are mayonnaise-based salads or proteins. When Coca-Cola gives a store a cooler — you can only put Coke products in it. Could we insist that only produce be put in our donated salad bars?

And what about the children themselves? Isn’t this a great time to start teaching them about food safety? Could the United Fresh Foundation offer an online salad bar food safety quiz designed to teach children proper conduct when eating off shared food venues and send every kid who passes it a digital certificate for them to print out?

Things happen in life and the industry should not allow fears about food safety to kill great programs. We should, however, position ourselves so that when the bad things happen, we can stand up proudly and say we did everything possible to prevent bad outcomes and we are proud that we have done a lot of good for the children of America.

That means when we put a salad bar in a school, we make sure the school is both educated on what it takes to operate a salad bar safely and committed to staff it in such a way that it will be kept clean and sanitary, that adequate staff will be available so that the behavior of the students will be properly monitored and the opportunity for consumption of fresh produce is maximized while the opportunity for a foodborne illness outbreak is minimized.

Clarification: Reggie Griffin Of Kroger To Be First Retail Chairman of United — In The Modern Era

Our piece, Watch History Being Made At United In Las Vegas: Steffanie Smith Becomes First Ex-Staffer Ever To Chair The Organization; Kroger’s Reggie Griffin Is Set Up To Become First Retailer To Chair United, explored the skills, abilities and experience of three recent leaders of United Fresh and the impact of these people and personalities on issues of association relations and industry representation.

In the course of the piece, we mentioned that Reggie Griffin, Vice President of Produce Merchandising at The Kroger Company, was becoming chairman-elect of United and thus was set up to become the first retail chairman of United.

We should have said of the United Fresh Produce Association or of United in the modern era.

Allen Brock of Publix was chairman of the old United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association back in 1981, and Richard Jahnke, of Wetterau, principally a wholesaler but with some retail stores, was Chairman, also of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, back in 1990.

United is trying to find us some earlier names and we will share them when we get them.

The Pundit gets three slaps with a wet noodle for not being completely clear, though, in this case, there was probably no significance to the error.

The questions raised by Reggie’s rise are two-fold:

To what degree is United’s role to represent growers of produce and to what degree, if any, will having a retailer heading the association conflict with this goal?

If a retailer can head United, then what, precisely, is it that prevents merger of United and PMA?

Of course, there may be another question in the background. Last time around, the issue was not so much Merger, yes or no; it was the terms of a merger that couldn’t be ironed out.

The United contingent wanted to sit down with a blank piece of paper and identify the best pieces of each organization from which to build a new organization.

The PMA contingent argued that it had a highly successful business model and that if a “Merger” took place, it should be more in the form of an acquisition, in which PMA would absorb United and reorganize as it wished.

Yet, when we see people like Reggie Griffin, who was on the board of PMA and, even more, Bruce Peterson, who was Chairman of PMA, serving on the United Board, it makes us think that the old distinctions are starting to not mean as much.

Down the road we see another issue. The produce trade has traditionally been enriched by vertical trade associations running down the supply chain. This is very different from most associations, such as FMI, the supermarket industry association, or NRA, the restaurant association, where the supply chain has no vote or policy involvement.

Yet our assessment of the new breed of produce executive at places like Wal-Mart is that these executives have little interest in produce and less expertise. Produce is another retail item to them, and they have great expertise in manipulating spread sheets, etc.

People like Dick Spezzano, Bob DiPiazza and Bruce Peterson they always imagined themselves as being in produce, if they ever were to leave their retail produce job, it was more likely they would go to work for a produce vendor than start selling some other category at retail. Many of the produce executives of today are punching a timecard and getting experience in perishables, but they identify themselves as primarily retail executives and when they finish their time in produce they expect to head up lawn mower sales or some such thing.

This raises the question of whether the next generation of retail produce executives will even be interested in being chairman of a produce association.

If not, that shift itself would have significant implications for the relationship of different associations within the industry.

Lorri Koster: Quiet Heroism Tinged By Tragedy, Powered By Obligation

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”.

William Shakespeare
Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene V

The title, Twelfth Night, is most commonly thought to be a reference to Epiphany — the twelfth night of Christmas. At the time Shakespeare was writing, the Epiphany was celebrated by turning everything upside down. The specific reference is probably to the upside-down, chaotic world of the Kingdom of Illyria, the location of the play. Though as we listened to Lorri Koster, Vice-President of Marketing and Co-Chairman of the Board at Mann Packing, accepting her honor at having been asked to speak at the annual United Fresh Reception Honoring Women in Produce, we thought it a reference to the way a life can be turned upside down by circumstances.

DeeDee and Gina, Lorri’s sisters, stood like sentinels supporting Lorri as she spoke, and Gina gamely tried to wipe the tears from her eyes as Lorri recounted the tale that brought her to this place. It was like a Shakespearean tragedy, the death of her only brother, Joe, like the fall of the young anointed prince… The passing of her father, Don, so soon thereafter, like the loss of a sage and great King, perhaps broken-hearted still at the death of his son.

She was nervous as she spoke, how could she not be? What message could she possibly say, what journey could she recount, that would not, in the end, have the same unspoken subtext: “Say what you will about achievement, yearn all you might for glory, but I would have given all for a simpler life: working to satisfaction, caring for my sons and loving my husband.”

Each year a speaker is chosen and, each year, there is a powerful story. This year the story was tinged by tragedy and powered by obligation. Lorri was dressed elegantly, an understated St. John-style jacket with a jeweled collar to add style, yet one imagined her, like in some Civil War epic, gathering her body and soul after the burning of the plantation, pulling her tattered shawl over her shoulders and, rising, head erect, vowing to do what must be done.

Greatness is sometimes associated in the public mind with grandiosity, but this is a false understanding. Lorri’s life has been inspirational because it speaks to the reservoirs of human potential that we all hold within us. Her greatness is the quiet heroism of the necessary.

She does not even realize how exceptional she is. She spoke off-handedly about her obligations as the eldest daughter, following the passing of her brother and father, not realizing that many would reject that birthright and the obligations that come with it. She does not believe there was another choice; to shirk her responsibilities is simply not in her vocabulary.

Lorri worked for this Pundit for a time and she was kind enough to mention the training she received in her speech. Yet the way Lorri has lived her life has taught this Pundit, and all who are willing to see, a lesson in the essential nature of human potential more valuable that any training program. Her comportment has been an example of dignity brought live.

As her sisters applauded, and the crowd cheered, we surveyed the room and thought, just for a moment, we thought we saw Joe and Don applauding as well. Maybe it was just our imagination, or maybe not. But we know they would want to applaud. A life well lived has earned the applause.

Many congratulations to Lorri Koster on occasion of her receipt of this honor.

We Need Electronic Documentation Systems: Lessons Learned From The Volcanic Ash

The headlines have been blasting about reopened skies in Europe: Britain Decides It’s Safe to Fly: Skies and Airports Reopen. But the produce and broader perishable food industry experienced great damage from the related suspension of air service: Volcano Ash Cloud Sets Off Global Domino Effect:

• The lack of refrigeration facilities at the airport in capital of the West African nation of Ghana has been a big blow to pineapple and pawpaw farmers who sell to Europe because of the lack of flights. As of Tuesday, no cargo flights have taken off yet.

• In Kenya, thousands of day laborers are out of work because produce and flowers can’t be exported amid the flight cancellations. Kenya has thrown away 10 million flowers — mostly roses — since the volcano eruption. Asparagus, broccoli and green beans meant for European dinner tables are being fed to Kenyan cattle because storage facilities are filled to capacity.

• In New York City’s Flower District, thousands of dollars worth of tulips, peonies, daffodils and hundreds of other varieties usually come in on the Friday night flights from the Netherlands to be distributed starting Saturday morning. Last weekend’s weddings didn’t have Dutch flowers.

• Swiss supermarket Migros warned of diminishing supplies of green asparagus during the beloved vegetable’s peak season amid halted air deliveries from the United States. Cod from Iceland and fresh tuna filets from Vietnam and the Philippines could also run out, it warned.

• Italian farmers’ lobby Coldiretti said each workday without flights costs euro10 million (about $14 million) as mozzarella and fresh fruits risk going bad.

The Federation of Association of Ghanaian Exporters (FAGE) saw the disaster as a moment to implore Ghanaians to start eating Asian vegetables and various fruits so the producers would not be wholly dependent on export markets:

We must learn to consume our
own produce — FAGE

The Federation of Association of Ghanaian Exporter’s ((FAGE) says the negative impact of the prevailing flight disruptions as a result of the Icelandic volcanic ash on the activities of local exporters of fresh produce offers useful lessons for the country as a whole.

The association says the phenomenon should be a clarion-call to the entire country on the imperative need to develop taste and a more extensive market for the locally-produced fruits and vegetables usually bound for export.

FAGE says this is crucial for the economic development of the country as if it were to be the case, the country’s affected export sub-sector would have somewhat been insulated against the harsh impact of the inevitable occurrence by way of a high local demand for the fresh produce.

It explained this would have gone a long way to avert the lay-off of workers in and the suspension of business activity with the suppliers of the affected companies like Blue Skies.

The association indicated that it would have also saved the exporters the several thousands of Pounds lost so far and thereby consolidate the country’s foreign exchange receipts.

The President of FAGE, Anthony Sikpa told Citi Business we do not consume most of the Asian vegetables here and as a country we need to learn to consume and develop taste for our own production…its not that these vegetables are not exotic, it is just not part of our diet.”

He added that “some vegetables are not consumed here though some Chinese restaurants may be using it, it is usually exported to Europe and we haven’t even developed serious taste for fruits. Most local restaurants do not even serve dessert not to talk of offer it for you to make a choice.”

Andrew Sharp, Business Development Director of Mack Multiples (UK) and a member of the board of directors of PMA, sent us this note in the midst of the crisis:

Biggest issue is people stuck around the world… The produce business has a lot of travelers and there are key people stuck in far flung places…

Europe resembles a war zone with people fleeing the Dust, heading to Transit Points and traversing France.

The channel Ferries have never had it so good… this would be a good stock to buy.

The other point is that all the documents we fly around the world, bills of lading, etc., are stuck, which means we can’t get to some of our fruit even though the containers are in the ports!

An electronic solution is needed desperately!

Andreas Schindler, Sales and Purchase Manager of the German produce importer Pilz Schindler and Director of the Don Limón brand, had this to say in the middle of the mess:

Concerning the ash-cloud here in Europe, we are affected mostly by the closing of nearly all airports in Europe. Nobody expected something like this. Even when it came up we expected maybe one day. But now we are blocked already 4 days. Completely — there is not one plane on the heaven.

We look at each other like … Hey, what is going on? Nobody has a concept for this case. And we do not know how long it will be blocked. And how it will go on after.

My brother is stuck in Madrid, and I wanted to fly to Mexico this weekend. My colleagues wanted to fly to Russia tomorrow….. Everything is blocked.

The mobility of the people by air is totally interrupted. The train stations are in a chaos.

Click the 12 photos with “Weiter

The internal transport of Europe is nearly 100 % by truck. There is not any problem.

Only exotic fruits from Latin America, Asia or Africa are blocked — like mango, mange-tout and other “little” fruits. Also the berries are not coming in.

Coming in from outside is a problem. The internal transport in Europe is not affected.

Exporters from overseas, focused on perishable fruits — transported by air — are heavily affected.

And we also received a report from Marc de Naeyer, Managing Partner of TROFI, who has contributed frequently to both the Pundit and sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS as with the following pieces:

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Tyranny Of Economics And The Goals Of Fairtrade

Pundit’s Mailbag — A European Provides Food For Thought In 2007

Pundit’s Mailbag — Fairtrade From A European Perspective

Pundit’s Mailbag — Global Warming’s Shameful Marketing Attempts

Pundit’s Mailbag — Translation Way Cool!

E.U. Expansion And Residue Reduction

Global Warming Will Not Go Quietly

Marc had this to say:

We used to do a lot of tropicals by air in the good old days — now it is mostly grapes, pineapples, melons, mangoes and avocados by sea.

Due to this shift in our business, we have been “lucky” so far as we do only marginal airfreight imports these days. But everybody is running out of stocks quickly: the losses for growers and exporters in places like Kenya are staggering. I read an article this morning in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times — which quoted exporters losing as much as $3 million a day in Kenya.

Kenya also exports thousands of tons of vegetables weekly (baby corn, extra fine beans, sugar snaps etc.) to the continent and UK. Other exotic imports from places such as Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc., have also come to a standstill.

On the other end of the spectrum is the export of Dutch vegetables to nations such as the Middle East and USA, which have caused tremendous losses.

The one major issue we as importers of seafreighted produce have to deal with is the fact that DHL/Fed Ex et al., are not delivering our documentation from the countries of origin. Fortunately, customs and phyto authorities are cooperating and temporarily agree to accept copies so we can get import goods cleared.

There is some indication that had authorities and airlines done better emergency planning, it may have not been necessary to impose a blanket ban on air travel. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece pointing out that Alaska Airlines had learned to deal with volcanic ash in a piece titled, How One Airline Skirts the Ash Clouds:

Alaska Airlines knows volcanic ash. Its decades of experience navigating around volcanic eruptions in Washington and Alaska could prove useful as airlines return to Europe’s ash-plagued skies.

Among the lessons: Pilot training, computer modeling to accurately predict ash trajectories and regular testing of the skyways when eruptions occur are crucial to maintaining safety and keeping planes flying. The Alaska Airlines experience suggests a volcanic eruption in Iceland doesn’t have to ground all flights in Northern Europe — there are ways to work around it.

Planes took to the skies across much of Europe on Tuesday, five days after the volcanic eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH’-tlah-yer-kuh-duhl) glacier in Iceland grounded thousands of flights and caused massive travel disruptions. It isn’t clear whether flights could have resumed sooner. But that’s mainly because government officials, weather experts and airlines didn’t put their heads together to determine where the ash was, and where it wasn’t.

Instead, the Iceland crisis resulted in a blanket closure of a huge swath of airspace, rather than a more targeted, scientific approach in which some routes are found to be clear of ash and left open. Governments were slow to understand the world-wide impact of the shutdown and based decisions to close airspace on theoretical models with little data collected or few tests done, complained Giovanni Bisignani, director general and chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, a Geneva-based airline-industry group.

Once tests were started, he said, some airspace that had been closed proved to be clean of ash. Had tests been run earlier in the crisis, large-scale flight operations could have continued, according to IATA.

“Nobody called for help,” Mr. Bisignani said.

This would have been a disaster in any event but among those we could control is the antiquated requirement for original documents to be curried around the world.

Nowadays even checks are not returned to people because digital copies are certified and accepted. There is not a reason in the world we couldn’t do that with shipping documents.

Many thanks to Andrew Sharp of Mack Multiples, Andreas Schindler of Don Limon and Marc de Naeyer of TROFI for helping to capture the experience of those caught in the midst of the battle.

Let us hope the authorities at least learn something from the disaster and move ahead with an electronic document process.

Al Lanfeld Writes To Frieda Caplan: Exemplifying A Kind-Hearted Industry

The great thing about producing the Perishable Pundit is that because we have an incredibly engaged readership we have an opportunity to interact with both the best and the brightest and those who contribute most to the advancement of the industry — from all around the world.

This engagement is obvious from both the letters we publish in the Pundit and those who volunteer to add to the great discussions in the Pundit.

It goes beyond that, though, often spurring a call to duty. We just have to publish that the American Council on Science and Health needs and merits help, as we did in our piece Thanksgiving Chemicals, and Matt Curry, President at Curry & Company, stands up and says he wants to contribute to this worthy cause. We simply have to explain that we need one person to complete the class at the United Fresh Produce Executive Development Program, as we did in our piece Hope To See You At United Fresh/Cornell Executive Development Program. And next thing you know the seat is filled.

Now we also know that Pundit readers also are big-hearted. We ran a piece titled, Get Well Wishes For Frieda Caplan, in which we pointed out that Frieda Rapoport Caplan, Founder at Frieda’s, Inc., had undergone serious surgery and was now doing well and recovering at home. As Frieda has been around awhile and is known by many, we suggested that those who wished to do so might want to send her a get-well note.

Now these notes went directly to Frieda and we don’t know who e-mailed her or what they said. But a few people sent us notes telling us that they had written Frieda. For example, this one came from a senior member of the industry:

Thanks for your info on Frieda, whom I have known since she started in business. Her deceased husband, Al Caplan, was a past president of an ILWU local union, with whom Friedman Bag-L.A. had a Union contract for our factory workers. (I was President of Friedman Bag, and negotiated Union contacts for our Factory employees with Al Caplan).

I was with Friedman Bag (now out of business), from 1949 to 2003, and then I started our own packaging sales business, Garner-Lanfeld Packaging, in 2003. I sent Frieda an email message, since you were kind enough to give all of your “Pundit” readers her email address. .

I always enjoy visiting with you at your PMA booth, and reading your “excellent and very informative” articles.

I have been in the “bag supply business” (mainly Onion, Potato, and Citrus bags) for the past 61 years and hope to continue to do so until I “retire to the cemetery”. I have now supplied bags to three generations of many of our customers.

Keep up the “good work” you do for the Produce Industry!

— Al Lanfeld
Garner-Lanfeld Packaging-L.A.
Auburn, California

Then Frieda herself was kind enough to copy us on the note she sent Mr. Lanfeld:

Just getting your e-mail brought back lots of memories… especially the picket lines at FRIEDMAN BAG!

Alvin, I remember you well… if you are around 86, then we are about the same age.

Yes, Jim Prevor’s comments brought over a 1,000 e-mails from around the world… and they are still comingl.

— Frieda

We are, of course, pleased Frieda is doing well and that Al Lanfeld and Frieda Caplan could reminisce a bit about old times.

We also wanted to raise a glass to our incredibly engaged and big-hearted readers. It is no little thing for over 1,000 industry members to do anything. To do something that is essentially an act of kindness is incredibly generous and makes us incredibly proud of the community we’ve built here at the Pundit.

L’Chaim to all who took a moment to send Frieda a note as well and all those who engage with us every day to help make the industry better. In the end, work, like the personal side of life, is made tolerable by the quality of people one interacts with. We are lucky to have a chance to interact with you.

Industry Owes Debt Of Gratitude To Cindy Seel For Her Work At PMA FIT

In the fall of 2006, we ran a piece titled, PMA Foundation Prepares To Launch, which included a brief reference to the then-newly established foundation’s executive director:

Recently Cindy Seel, a popular executive when she worked at PMA from 1997 to 2002 and a minor celebrity as she was the pioneer in a PMA experiment that led to certain employees being allowed to operate from remote locations, was appointed as the executive director of the new foundation.

We tried to help what was then called the PMA Education Foundation and what ultimately came to be called the PMA Foundation For Industry Talent (PMA FIT) by offering to run a series of pieces in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, that laid out the rationale for the foundation and provided a basis for soliciting donations:

May You Live In Interesting Times

Workplace Disconnects

Finding — And Keeping — Talent

Early Exposure Breeds Success

Supporting The Foundation

Cindy left the Foundation in early March. She has children and her living in Atlanta and PMA being headquartered in Newark, Delaware, required much travel beyond the already extensive travel required to visit donors and execute the programs of the Foundation. We also suspect that organizational changes at PMA, which served to tie the Foundation closer into PMA’s organizational structure, made the job more difficult for someone working remotely.

Cindy was able to secure a position as a Vice President at the Printing & Imaging Association of Georgia just a hop, skip and a jump from her home, and at this stage in her life, that is surely the right position for her to hold. We wish her well.

As the Foundation prepares for its first Board Meeting since Cindy’s resignation, we thought it worth mentioning what an incredible job she did.

Starting from the nothing, PMA FIT has raised over five million dollars!

Now, obviously, Cindy can’t get all the credit for this. PMA has donated a lot of money and, perhaps more important, made donations to the Foundation a great opportunity for donors, as PMA picked up most overhead costs including three staff members. Rare in the world of philanthropy, this meant a donor could give to PMA FIT and know that 100% of his or her donation would go toward the cause itself — not administration and overhead.

The whole Foundation was inspired by the generosity of Jay and Ruthie Pack who have continued to support its work through the years.

Plus many of the donors are among PMA’s largest supporters and would have seriously considered any PMA initiative.

The board of directors has remarkable consistency with Bill Schuler of Castellini Company LLC, Bud Floyd of C. H. Robinson Worldwide. Peter Goulet of Pinnacle Sales & Marketing, Stephen Barnard of Mission Produce, John Anderson of The Oppenheimer Group, Duane Eaton of the PMA, Gene Harris of Denny’s Corporation, Ed McLaughlin of Cornell University, Lisa McNeece of Grimmway, Jay Pack of The Pack Group, and Bryan Silbermann of the PMA having all served continuously on the board since its founding.

Others on the initial board included Janet Erickson of Del Taco, Roberta Cook of UC Davis, Margaret D’Arrigo Martin of D’Arrigo Bros of California, Don Harris when he was with Wild Oats, Robert Gray when he was with Duda, Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms. The current board also includes Dave Corsi of Wegmans, Jan DeLyser from the California Avocado Commission, Lorri Koster of Mann Packing, Jim Leimkuhler of Progressive Produce, Frank Padilla of Costco Wholesale, Dick Spezzano of Spezzano Consulting Service, Geoff White, Safeway, and Tim York of Markon Cooperative.

This is a powerhouse board and its mrmbers could have raised a lot of money on their own, though of course, Cindy helped to shape the board.

And the whole idea of the Foundation — to attract, develop and retain talent for the produce supply chain — is sort of Mom and Apple Pie and so difficult to resist.

Finally, the produce industry is a generous and supportive one for valuable initiatives.

This is all true but does nothing to subtract from Cindy’s achievement. The best opportunities in the world can be squandered through mismanagement or lost if people find the leadership uninspiring or doubt their competence.

Executive directors come and go, and with its capital campaign concluded and many programs well established, the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent will do just fine.

But the industry owes a tip of the hat to a woman who took nothing and made it something. It could have easily worked out differently.

Qualities Of Leadership

Over the years, we have done a great deal on the issue of leadership.

Many of the issues that seem substantive — traceability and whether United and PMA should merge or cooperate in some way — are less questions amenable to technical solution than they are challenges crying out for leadership.

Leadership is, however, difficult to exert. It is even difficult to define.

We ran a piece in Pundit sister publication, PROPDUCE BUSINESS, titled, Effectiveness More Crucial Than Leadership, on the issue of management vs. leadership. Now we would like to extend a hat tip to Ed Kershaw, CEO at Domex Superfresh Growers, for sending us a piece on Leadership. He calls it “the best article I have ever read on Leadership.”

It is called Solitude and Leadership and ran in The American Scholar. It was originally a lecture delivered to the Plebe Class at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

In the piece the author, William Deresiewicz, tries to distinguish between high achievers and true leaders. Here are a few pointed excerpts:

We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership, Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia, and all our other major institutions — senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents, and so forth — we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.

So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me

See, things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. We didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in — in addition to perfect grades and top scores — usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.


We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army — a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

Look at the most successful, most acclaimed, and perhaps the finest soldier of his generation, General David Petraeus. He’s one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons. He is a thinker. He is an intellectual. In fact, Prospect magazine named him Public Intellectual of the Year in 2008 — that’s in the world. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a Ph.D. or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point. I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.

No, what makes him a thinker — and a leader — is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

It wasn’t always easy for him. His path to where he is now was not a straight one. When he was running Mosul in 2003 as commander of the 101st Airborne and developing the strategy he would later formulate in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and then ultimately apply throughout Iraq, he pissed a lot of people off. He was way ahead of the leadership in Baghdad and Washington, and bureaucracies don’t like that sort of thing. Here he was, just another two-star, and he was saying, implicitly but loudly, that the leadership was wrong about the way it was running the war. Indeed, he was not rewarded at first. He was put in charge of training the Iraqi army, which was considered a blow to his career, a dead-end job. But he stuck to his guns, and ultimately he was vindicated. Ironically, one of the central elements of his counterinsurgency strategy is precisely the idea that officers need to think flexibly, creatively, and independently

The piece goes on to discuss the importance of focus and to disparage the idea of multi-tasking. In the end, it points to leadership as a solitary, even lonely, activity:

You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?

How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself — morality, mortality, honor — so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

This week PMA is having its board of directors meeting. Reading this piece may help focus them on their task.

Many thanks to Ed Kershaw and Domex Superfresh Growers for passing this along.

Last Chance To Recognize Young Leaders

The future of the industry is always being decided by people and their actions.

The industry has thus established many mechanisms for attracting, developing and retaining good people.

United has its Leadership Class and its Executive Development Program at Cornell University.

PMA has long had its Leadership Symposium, the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund and the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation.

Over the past five years, Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, has done an annual recognition of the trade’s young leadership with its annual 40-Under-Forty issue. You can review the five classes to date:

40-Under-Forty — June 2005

40-Under-Forty — June 2006

40-Under-Forty — June 2007

40-Under-Forty — June 2008

In an attempt to both recognize young leaders and inspire those following behind them, the 40-Under-Forty recipients are unveiled annually in the June issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS and then feted, along with the Pack students, at a special invitation-only reception at PMA each year.

We look for individuals who contribute to their companies, their peers, their industry and their community.

We are now accepting final nominations for this year’s honorees.

It is a simple form and we encourage you to think about young leadership in the trade and who is deserving of recognition.

You can download a nomination form right here.

Mail to a Friend

© 2021 Perishable Pundit | Subscribe | Print | Search | Archives | Feedback | Info | Sponsorship | About Jim | Request Speaking Engagement | Contact Us