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Perishable Pundit
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Fax: 561-994-1610


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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Fresh Basil Recall Brings Additional Concerns About FDA’s Safety Procedures

As we head into Christmas, here is little gift the industry could have done without:

Top Line Specialty Produce Recalls “Green Paradise”
Basil Because of Possible Health Risk

Contact:
Alberto Martinez
(213) 747-9200

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — December 19, 2007 — Top Line Specialty Produce of Los Angeles, California, is voluntary recalling its 12 x 1 pound boxes of “Green Paradise label” Fresh Italian basil, because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with this organism often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with “Salmonella” can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), Endocarditis and arthritis.

The recalled “Green Paradise Basil” was distributed to Food Service Distributors through direct shipping on 12/06/2007 in Southern California, Illinois and Texas.

The product comes in a 12 x 1 lb box marked with lot # 1219 on the side of the box.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The potential for contamination was noted after routine testing revealing evidence of Salmonella in some 1lb units of the basil. Imports of this label (“Green Paradise”) have been suspended while FDA and the company continue their investigation as to the source of the problem.

Consumers who have purchased the affected boxes of “Green Paradise Italian Basil” are urged to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund. Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-213-747-9200.

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Feeling that our mozzarella, tomato and basil salad with balsamic vinaigrette might be at risk, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Alberto Martinez
Owner
Top Line Specialty Produce
Los Angeles, California

Q: I hear you’ve been working tirelessly since three in the morning, speaking with customers affected by the recall. I find it admirable that you are devoting your time to personally share more details of your experience with our readers. Following up on the FDA recall notice, could you provide a timeline of events?

A: We sent the press release yesterday afternoon (December 19) and are continuing with the recall process. We printed out a list of customers that we sent product to that day. We’ve been in touch via telephone, but will follow with a formal letter requesting any product they still have in their possession to bring back for a full refund.

Q: How and when did you discover the problem?

A: The product came into the country from Mexico — the southern Baja, California region in the Los Cabos area, on December 5th and to our warehouse on December 6th.

It was randomly tested by the FDA and they notified me when they had the results. I haven’t been provided with any actual test results. They notified me by phone.

Q: What kinds of testing did FDA perform and what did inspectors say were the results of that testing? Were these tests preliminary?

A: I received a letter, a Notice to Importer, from the FDA on December 6th that surveillance sample(s) were collected from the shipment and will be tested for the presence of pathogenic micro-organisms. In the Notice, it said preliminary analytical results may be available within four to nine days following the date of sample collection.

It stated that FDA will attempt to provide us with preliminary results as soon as they become available. I was notified by phone 12 days later. It said in the Notice that should a sample be determined to contain a pathogenic microorganism and is violative, the importer will be responsible to initiate a recall of the product.

Q: Did the FDA confirm the presence of Salmonella in the product it tested?

A: They’re saying it is a possibility, but not providing results. How do I know it’s contaminated? They’re saying over the phone it’s a possibility. On the press release, approved by them, it says the FDA and company will continue to further test. They asked me to do this press release. I e-mailed it to the inspector, they changed a few things and I approved it. The wording is: “The potential for contamination was noted after routine testing revealing evidence of Salmonella in some 1 lb units of the basil.”

Q: How was the scope of the recall determined?

A: I took action to stop further import of this label. FDA didn’t ask me to. I want to assure people we are conscious of safety, and are taking extra steps. I want to clarify this because my name is out there and my reputation is at stake. I told the inspector, ‘I’m a small company, not one of those big, big guys in the industry.’ Even though we received more shipments and they were released from FDA, as an extra precaution we told the shipper not to send any more.

We want to test product on the ground before harvest. We cancelled all shipments from this grower. We have another grower in Puerto Viarta, Mexico, in a different growing region and that’s the product we’re going to be using from now on, until we come to the cause of the problem.

Q: It’s often difficult to get to the root cause of a food safety problem, as exemplified by the spinach E. coli outbreak investigation…

A: We know there’s a possibility we’ll never figure out the cause, but if we test product on the ground and it comes out OK, at least we’re doing our part. I don’t want to get people sick. Hearing about the recall, my wife expressed concern, ‘We’ve been eating basil,’ and I reassured her, ‘Don’t worry; it’s just this one shipment.’

Q: How much product in question went out into the market?

A: 5,500 pounds were received. That shipment was marked with lot number 1219; 12 representing the month, and 19 representing the number of shipments we received from that grower during the season. We import about 20,000 pounds of basil a week. Consumption in the U.S. is huge.

Q: Have you been able to track down all the places the product ended up? Traceability both backward and forward has proven to be a challenge in our industry.

A: I’m the direct importer of this product. My customers are food service distributors, so from that point on I don’t know where the product went. It could have gone to some retailers but I wouldn’t have that information. On December 6th, the product was shipped directly to 13 different distributors located in Southern California, Illinois and Texas.

We’ve been working hard and have been getting tons of phone calls. A lot of people are cool about it. They know what we’re going through and understand the situation, but some don’t have knowledge.

Tracking down product is very hard. It is a highly perishable item that has to be consumed within three to four days. By now, if the consumer hadn’t eaten the basil, they would have thrown it away.

Q: So the delay in notification essentially could have put people’s safety at risk?

A: It’s been two weeks already. The FDA dragged their feet to let us know about it. Now to find out, it’s already too late. The product has already been consumed.

I only spoke to the first inspector in Nogales, Arizona, on Tuesday this week. She told me to call another person in a different location and they gave me another number in San Diego, and then a person there passed on another number for Larry Howell in Irvine, California.

I guess he’s the regional person to go to when product crosses the border. By then, my day was over and everyone had gone home, so I had to wait till the next day. Yesterday (Wednesday, December 19) is when I got in touch with Larry.

Q: There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency, even though food safety issues are at stake.

A: These notices from FDA for random testing go out all the time. It didn’t look too concerning to me. Sometimes they red tag product, and you can’t sell it; otherwise there are penalties or fines. That is not what happened here, this was just a random test as far as I know, and we were permitted to sell the product. This has happened before where FDA sends letters, tests randomly and never calls you back to say everything is fine. You’d think they’d call to tell me product is OK. We’re talking over $10,000 worth, which is a lot for a small company. Two weeks later, that product would have been in the trash.

Q: Do you do your own product testing?

A: Our growers do their own testing and provide me with their results, and if we suspect any problem we send product to a lab in Orange County for further testing. During that time, I would hold product, of course. I would always hold product if they had a problem.

Even if FDA would charge us to expedite testing, it would be better to learn about the problem faster. I’d be willing to pay $200, $300, $400 out of my pocket for FDA to overnight samples so we could find out results in two days. Now I have people calling me for my liability insurance certification.

Larry Howell urged me yesterday (Wednesday) to do the press release to let the press know about the potential problem. The second step we’re taking is sending out formal letters to customers that took product. We already talked to our customers by phone.

Q: Have you asked FDA for copies of the results, or documentation in writing of what procedures occurred?

A: FDA won’t even provide any proof the samples were sent to a lab, or the results, and we’ve received nothing in writing, only verbal communication. Unfortunately word spreads of a problem at Top Line Specialty Produce, and it hurts our name. Hopefully people know we are conscious about food safety.

The good thing is this really is a pro forma recall since it is highly unlikely that any of this product is still sitting around. Because most or all of the product went to foodservice, we don’t even have to worry about it sitting in the refrigerators of consumers.

Three things do come to mind regarding this incident:

1)   Why does this take so long? You can practically hear the frustration in Alberto Martinez’s cry:

Even if FDA would charge us to expedite testing, it would be better to learn about the problem faster. I’d be willing to pay $200, $300, $400 out of my pocket for FDA to overnight samples so we could find out results in two days. Now I have people calling me for my liability insurance certification.
2)   Why is the FDA so unwilling to put things in writing, so mysterious about results? We had similar issues when Dole had its issue with the Canadian Food inspection Agency. We asked Why The Secrecy On Inspection Agency Lab Results? And pointed out:

Unfortunately, the CFIA won’t give out any information. They will not share test results or the PFGE strips. They just repeat like a mantra that they took 40 bags, and broke them into 8 samples of 5 bags each.

This is a very serious matter. Reputations, businesses, whole industries can be destroyed based on government reports on these matters.

It is too important a matter to allow for possibly self-serving secrecy.

Both the companies involved and the public at large are entitled to complete transparency so that the possibility of error or malfeasance can be considered.

How do we know that CFIA isn’t covering up for the incompetence of its own lab? Perhaps one day a lab technician will be paid off by a competitor. The process has to be transparent or people will lose confidence.

There is not a reason in the world why CFIA doesn’t release the PFGE strips and the test results so other experts can at least review them for anomalies.

We don’t see any reason the FDA shouldn’t be equally transparent.
3)   The trace-forward issue is still bedeviling the industry. We have an important task force meeting in January. Communication efforts are crucial — we need to get to the point where in the very press release announcing the recall, we can report a lot more information about where the product wound up.

Remember the point is to encourage consumption by being able to reassure people they are safe. So if this product was sold to Pizza Hut by one of the distributors, that info should be out early as should Pizza Hut’s assurance that it has checked every restaurant and none is left. Here we find another step in traceability; a restaurant chain needs a procedure for quick inventory of every restaurant.

We want to come out, virtually simultaneously with a statement: there is a recall on basil, it was sold to Chain A for use in State A, B and C. All restaurants searched and all the product has been consumed or destroyed.

As part of its Produce Safety Action Plan, FDA has been working with industry to develop commodity-specific guidelines for five “high-risk” commodity groups: Cantaloupes, Tomatoes, Lettuce and Leafy Greens, Green Onions and Herbs. This effort began in 2005. Why in the world do we not yet have the plan for herbs? There is, of course, no way to know if it would have helped, but it couldn’t hurt and might do some good.

And it would give someone like Alberto Martinez, who seems like a decent guy who just got run over by a train, something useful to demand of his growers.

Now he is left demanding more testing, not because statistically that will make a difference, but because he feels that “… if we test product on the ground and it comes out OK, at least we’re doing our part. I don’t want to get people sick.”

We should give herb growers a better set of tools so that we can make that more likely. Let us commit to a date certain to finish the Commodity Specific Guidelines for herbs.

Many thanks to Alberto Martinez and Top Line Specialty Produce for taking time in the midst of a pretty tough day to help keep the broader industry informed.

Just as we were putting this to bed we received word of a second, related recall:

We would like to inform you of a Voluntary Recall of 1# Fresh Basil packed under the Bon Apetit brand because they have a potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The lot# for the 1# Basil involved in the voluntary recall is 52/340.

Following is the specific information:

Product shipped overnight on December 6, 2007

100 — 1# Basil PO#40836

Please call me for any additional information.

Ralph Slomovits
VP Sales & Marketing
HerbThyme Farms, Inc.
310-884-9122 Fax: 637-7218

Apparently HerbThyme Farms had bought some product from Top Line Specialty Produce so this is the exact same product being recalled for the exact same reason. No indication of a larger problem. Many thanks to Ralp Slomovits and HerbThyme Farms for burning the midnight oil to keep the trade informed.




Too Many Concerns Still Exist Over
Organic Certification In China

One of the important issues that we have dealt with this year is food safety and China. We’ve run many pieces exploring different aspects of this problem, from counterfeiting to pesticides, from the difficulty of assuring accreditation is legitimate to the role of bribery in Chinese culture.

Here is a selection of some of the pieces we have run related to these topics:

China Plays Down Food Safety Problems

Chinese Garlic And Food Safety

China Executes Food And Drug Safety Regulator

More Food Safety Lessons From Chinese Ginger Recall

Pundit’s Mailbag — Eye-Opening Visit To China’s Garlic Growers

Pundit’s Mailbag — Where Accreditation Is For Sale, We Better Know Our Suppliers

Pundit’s Mailbag — Chinese Produce Imports And Retail Responsibilities

Expert On Chinese Garlic Weighs In On Food Safety Issue

Chinese Apples Pose Threat To US Apple Industry

Pundit’s Mailbag — China, COOL And International Opportunities

China’s Food Safety Issues Plague Exports AND Imports

Zespri Among Most Counterfeited Brands In China

Brand-Crazy Chinese

Pundit’s Mailbag — Call For Counterfeiting Countermeasures

As we ran these and other pieces, one of the most frequent questions we received from the buying end of the industry has been a request for information regarding the quality of organic certification coming out of China.

We had dealt with issue a bit in our piece, Lack of USDA Oversight On Organics Portends Bigger Problems For Conventional Produce. In this article, we quoted a commentary by Jacqueline Ostfeld, the food and drug safety officer at the non-profit public interest group, Government Accountability Project, called Blowing The Whistle on Sham Organics, that we mostly found to be overstated.

We did find interesting, however, these comments on China and organics:

China has four times the amount of land in organic food production than does the US. China’s organic exports, growing at a rate of 50 percent annually, now total upwards of $200 million. While most of the exports enter European markets, a significant and growing portion are reaching American dinner tables. Yet a USDA economist acknowledged China is probably too polluted to grow truly organic food.

A Dallas Morning News investigation disclosed the discovery by a Japanese inspector of an empty herbicide bag on an “organic” soybean field in China.

Could soy from this field enter the U.S. market? Absolutely. The USDA says it would not look behind the claim that the herbicide bag was carried by the wind onto the farm. Rather, it relies on organic certifiers to make the call.

Many retailers have told us quietly that they have stopped importing fresh produce from China — almost all garlic and ginger — and some retailers such as Trader Joe’s have announced formal restrictions:

Trader Joe’s, the hip, wholesome food store with 15 locations in the Chicago area, said … it will phase out foods imported from China amid concerns that standards on “organic” products from the country aren’t as stringent as they should be.

Alison Mochizuki, spokeswoman for the Monrovia, Calif.-based grocer, e-mailed a statement saying the grocer will phase out single — ingredient products from mainland China by Jan. 1.

“We feel confident that all of our products from China meet the same high quality standards that we set for all of our products,” the statement read. “However, our customers have voiced their concerns about products from this region and we have listened.

“We will continue to source products from other regions until our customers feel as confident as we do about the quality and safety of Chinese products.”

To some extent, the Trader Joe’s comment, which applies to a range of items far beyond produce, is reasonably reflective of what we hear from retailers: They are not overly concerned about food safety from China, but the items — especially in produce — that are imported from China are so minimal that they don’t view it as worth any risk or hassle to keep buying those products from China.

The Trader Joe’s statement only applies to “single-ingredient products,” of which there are not many. If Trader Joe’s was actually concerned on this issue, the press release would say that Trader Joe’s, which sells almost exclusively private label product, had directed its suppliers to cease using ingredients from China.

In some ways, this release was a bit of a stunt, as it probably didn’t apply to 99% of the products Trader Joe’s sells that come, in whole or in part, from China.

The article identifies Trader Joe’s motivation in taking this move as follows:

Trader Joe’s move follows criticism of what’s perceived as gaps in the system for verifying organic imports.

We wanted to learn about organic certification in China, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to talk with one of the U.S. firms handling organic certification in China:

Jeff See
Executive Director
OCIA International
Lincoln, Nebraska

Q: How does the certification process in China work?

A: Certification is a form of auditing. The applicant — the organic operator or potential operation — submits an organic plan of how it’s going to manage the farm or processing plant to a certifier. Based on that, there are quite a few different programs out there now that organic operations can apply to. Your readers would be interested in the standards through the National Organic Program (NOP).

We do a pre-inspection review to determine if the applicants are eligible based on their paper work submission and organic management plan. They’re telling us what they’re going to do. We have staff that knows the standards and makes the assessment if they have met those standards. If they’re eligible, then an inspection is assigned.

Q: Who does the inspections?

A: The inspections are completed by a second party that is aware of the standards. We have a staff in house to review the work. OCIA at the present time only has three inspectors on staff. All other inspections we contract out through a body like Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA), which is not related to OCIA.

Q: Who are these contracted inspectors? What are their qualifications?

A: Qualifications could be a combination of educational background and agricultural experience that could get you qualified to do inspections; these are not necessarily PhDs. We have an approval system for inspectors.

We operate in quite a few different countries throughout the world. In China there is a lot of interest in food safety. This is the same process we apply in China. Once inspectors are assigned, they’re given the organic operation plan, and any notes from the pre-inspection review. They do an on site audit of what the operation is doing at that point and they compare that with the organic management plan previously submitted.

Q: Are these U.S. inspectors?

A: Typically they’re local inspectors. Anywhere we operate in the world, we work with local people. If we had to fly U.S. inspectors to China, the cost would be so high. We look for local inspectors and make sure they are trained.

Q: Do you have an office in China?

A: We have three people working directly for us in China. The office manager there who’s responsible has a Ph.D. I’m not sure of the current number of Chinese inspectors now. It’s a group we contract individually. Your readers have to realize that’s the way we operate everywhere. Even in the U.S., the only staff inspectors we have are three training personnel. It’s a common practice.

Q: Do you find inspections and verifications more challenging in remote areas where technology systems are less advanced, or because of cultural differences?

A: We have a lot of small farms that we verify in North America, including the U.S., that don’t have access to computers and the Internet. It doesn’t matter if the operators are in China, Japan, Africa, or the U.S.; they have to demonstrate they have an organic management plan and are following it.

Q: Doesn’t much of this process depend on the truthfulness of the operator? Haven’t many of the reported food safety problems coming out of China been traced to fraudulent practices?

A: The biggest issue of fraud certification that has been exposed has been in the U.S. from an operation out of Texas about a year ago running conventional soybeans as organic. NOP was alerted to that and dealt with the deceptive practice swiftly.

With organic certification you have to realize we’re not sitting out there on the farms 100 percent of the time. So you rely on the integrity of those involved. This is an accepted method developed over the years. OCIA was one of the original certification groups. We’ve been applying the same methods about certificates and standards made about organics since the mid-1980s and before. In the process, we have things in place.

Once the inspector goes out, he writes a report, it’s brought back and the inspection plan and report are all looked at by a third party trained by our staff directly. We control that, providing another level of review. That’s when the certification decisions and any recommendations and requirements are made. We have checks and balances.

When a retailer buys something from an OCIA producer, we issue a transaction certificate, generally within 24 hours. If a Chinese operator is making a transaction with a retailer in the U.S., we keep track in our data base of who is certified.

These are not fraudulent documents. These papers come from us. From time to time, we get questioned whether this is real. We issue a transaction certificate saying this is an operation that has gone through the process and has done what is claimed on the certification. This process is done to reduce fraud of product coming into the market.

Q: But the certificate you issue is still based to a great extent on the integrity, as you said earlier, of the operator in continuing to follow the OCIA-approved plan since you are unable to monitor the practices regularly.

A: We do oversight. One of our goals is to increase inspections since the Dallas Morning News started this whole disparaging report questioning the legitimacy of organic certifications coming out of China. They had made some erroneous claims regarding three of our certified operations in China.

Q: Did you take any actions to refute the claims?

A: We contacted Mr. Yutaka Marianos, an independent, reputable Japanese inspector, to investigate and conduct an inspection of the Rizhao Huassai operations to confirm or dispel the newspaper accusations. We don’t hire him directly, but we use him in Japan to do organic certification. Claims made were very serious, and we wanted someone outside China to go in and do an unannounced inspection on these three operations. And all three were found by Marianos to be in compliance. Of course, that wasn’t written about after the sensational news story.

Q: What specific statements published in the Dallas newspaper article do you believe were erroneous? Did the reporters provide any documentation to back up these claims?

A: They called some of our operations, which were targeted as a prime concern because we’re seen as the only U.S. operations based in China for certification. Although our head office is in the U.S., we do have offices in other countries. Location of the head office isn’t really a concern in this case.

They had an interpreter, according to the reporter. One of the operations had claimed they had never seen an OCIA inspector. The person they talked to had actually signed an exit interview. At another operation they called, they weren’t speaking to the person responsible for the organic certification. The operator was also handling conventional product.

The reporter had asked if the operator used night soil — human feces to enrich the soil. Traditionally in China that’s used to fertilize crop. The person on the phone said, yeah, we use night soil in the field. When Mr. Marionas went out there, he showed that night soil wasn’t used in the organic fields, but was used in conventional fields.

Farm workers in a broccoli field

Q: We’ve heard from various sources, including scientists who have done work in China, that the widespread water pollution and other contaminants that have built up in the field over time makes it difficult to say any food grown in China truly meets U.S. organic standards.

A: A lot of our rivers are used to fertilize crops, so you don’t know if you’re ever far from human feces whether organic or conventional. We have six billion people on this planet. It’s is a fact of life. In organic standards, this is not allowed as direct input. At least in the operations called by the Dallas Morning News reporter, it wasn’t happening.

Q: Well, at least you could verify that to be the case during the time of the unannounced inspection. You mentioned a goal of increasing oversight. What types of actions are taking on this front?

A: We sent our three-person staff in March of this year to China because of these concerns to do additional trainings and to visit some of these farms and reiterate organic standards and OCIA practices. This was done at OCIA’s expense. [Editor’s note — see the attached OCIA practices document here.]

And the goal through our staff we’ve hired in China is to have 100 percent of all new applicants undergo a second unannounced inspection annually.

Q: Would that be two unannounced inspections annually then?

A: No. The new applicants would have the initial inspection and within that year an unannounced inspection.

Q: What about the applicants already approved?

A: And 67 percent of all returning applicants will get an unannounced inspection each year.They would already have been certified with us. This is to show OCIA is committed to organics and the concerns of product coming out of China. We want people to be able to trust the organic certification system. We don’t feel we need to do this, but we want to address the concerns and we know there are errors.

Part of the inspection process is a learning process for the applicant. The operator presents the plan; there is a pre-inspection and final review with requirements and recommendations. Inspections are a method of verification but also an opportunity for applicants to improve operations further.

Q: Are you always verifying to NOP standards?

A: NOP, the body here in the U.S., delineates standards. There are different standards for different countries and we even implement our own private standards.

OCIA was founded in 1985 and has been incorporated since 1987. We are membership-owned and board-controlled. The plan for now is to keep it about the same.

We recently finished our audit with IFOAM, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement. Most of their offices are located in Europe, including the headquarters. They’re a private standard, not government-managed. Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) went into play in 2000. We are accredited to JAS through our Japan offices.

NOP came about in 2002. Prior to that, all organics were regulated by private standards. This was not that long ago. We are accredited to NOP, and also to the Canadian organic standards, as well as to those of the Costa Rican body. We’re accredited by ISO-65, which conducts internal audits to make sure we’re doing what we say we’re doing.

Q: Are you able to certify to EU standards?

A: We offer EU verification, not EU certification, to sell products in Europe. We can verify you’re in compliance with European standards. We are currently trying to get the ability to certify into Europe.

Q: Will you be expanding your office in China to be more hands on?

A: We hired the three staff in China to do the unannounced inspection. We started the office a year ago before this. We were beefing up our work with China and we wanted to do more in native Chinese. When you translate you can lose the meaning.

We’re not new to China for certification. We’ve been working with China since 1994/1995. We introduced organics into China. We started working with a group there that started as a chapter and is now a certification body that provides certifications to local Chinese standards.

We don’t implement the local Chinese standards ourselves, but there are quite a few similarities, a lot of the same concerns regarding the inputs you use. And there is a focus on standards; not just what you put on the fields but how you manage the lands. Organics is interested in sustaining the land, being able to continue this process for generations, not just doing what North American practices. It’s not just about the feeding of unnatural fertilizers and chemicals to be sure it grows; it’s not that, it’s about making the soil healthier.

Q: Are you unique in the NOP certification services you provide in China?

A: There’s another big certifier that has a partnership with Quality Assurance International (QAI). They share an office in Japan, have an office in China and operate in other places around the world. We’re probably the only major U.S. company with a home office here that has an office in China. There are four foreign bodies in China all accredited by USDA to allow NOP certification to bring product to the USA.

Worldwide we have 2,500 organic operations and less than 10 percent come out of China.

We appreciate the time Mr. See and OCIA International took to help the industry better understand the organic certification process in China. There is no question that OCIA is a reputable organization and trying to do the right thing.

Yet, the interview is unlikely to reassure those with doubts about the true nature of Chinese organics.

First, it has long been recognized that the organic consumer wants more than simply product grown without synthetic fertilizers. That is why the rules specifically prohibit things such as irradiation and GMOs. There are real questions as if, fundamentally, it is possible to grow produce in much of China that Americans would feel comfortable with. Why? The general environmental situation in China continues to deteriorate.

We extend a hat tip to Steve Nasiff of Nasiff Fruit Company. Showing that intellectuals lurk in every corner of the produce trade, Steve sent us a piece from Foreign Affairs entitled, The Great Leap Backward?:

China’s environmental problems are mounting. Water pollution and water scarcity are burdening the economy, rising levels of air pollution are endangering the health of millions of Chinese, and much of the country’s land is rapidly turning into desert. China has become a world leader in air and water pollution and land degradation and a top contributor to some of the world’s most vexing global environmental problems, such as the illegal timber trade, marine pollution, and climate change. As China’s pollution woes increase, so, too, do the risks to its economy, public health, social stability, and international reputation. As Pan Yue, a vice minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), warned in 2005, “The [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.”…

China’s rapid development, often touted as an economic miracle, has become an environmental disaster. Record growth necessarily requires the gargantuan consumption of resources, but in China energy use has been especially unclean and inefficient, with dire consequences for the country’s air, land, and water.

The coal that has powered China’s economic growth, for example, is also choking its people…

Consumption in China is huge partly because it is inefficient: as one Chinese official told Der Spiegel in early 2006, “To produce goods worth $10,000 we need seven times the resources used by Japan, almost six times the resources used by the U.S. and — a particular source of embarrassment — almost three times the resources used by India.”

Meanwhile, this reliance on coal is devastating China’s environment. The country is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, and four of the worst off among them are in the coal-rich province of Shanxi, in northeastern China. As much as 90 percent of China’s sulfur dioxide emissions and 50 percent of its particulate emissions are the result of coal use. Particulates are responsible for respiratory problems among the population, and acid rain, which is caused by sulfur dioxide emissions, falls on one-quarter of China’s territory and on one-third of its agricultural land, diminishing agricultural output and eroding buildings….

…much of China’s arable soil is contaminated, raising concerns about food safety. As much as ten percent of China’s farmland is believed to be polluted, and every year 12 million tons of grain are contaminated with heavy metals absorbed from the soil….

Pollution is also endangering China’s water supplies. China’s ground water, which provides 70 percent of the country’s total drinking water, is under threat from a variety of sources, such as polluted surface water, hazardous waste sites, and pesticides and fertilizers. According to one report by the government-run Xinhua News Agency, the aquifers in 90 percent of Chinese cities are polluted. More than 75 percent of the river water flowing through China’s urban areas is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and the Chinese government deems about 30 percent of the river water throughout the country to be unfit for use in agriculture or industry. As a result, nearly 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste. The World Bank has found that the failure to provide fully two-thirds of the rural population with piped water is a leading cause of death among children under the age of five and is responsible for as much as 11 percent of the cases of gastrointestinal cancer in China.

One of the problems is that although China has plenty of laws and regulations designed to ensure clean water, factory owners and local officials do not enforce them. A 2005 survey of 509 cities revealed that only 23 percent of factories properly treated sewage before disposing of it. According to another report, today one-third of all industrial wastewater in China and two-thirds of household sewage are released untreated. Recent Chinese studies of two of the country’s most important sources of water — the Yangtze and Yellow rivers — illustrate the growing challenge. The Yangtze River, which stretches all the way from the Tibetan Plateau to Shanghai, receives 40 percent of the country’s sewage, 80 percent of it untreated. In 2007, the Chinese government announced that it was delaying, in part because of pollution, the development of a $60 billion plan to divert the river in order to supply the water-starved cities of Beijing and Tianjin. The Yellow River supplies water to more than 150 million people and 15 percent of China’s agricultural land, but two-thirds of its water is considered unsafe to drink and 10 percent of its water is classified as sewage. In early 2007, Chinese officials announced that over one-third of the fish species native to the Yellow River had become extinct due to damming or pollution….

… Today, fully 190 million Chinese are sick from drinking contaminated water. All along China’s major rivers, villages report skyrocketing rates of diarrheal diseases, cancer, tumors, leukemia, and stunted growth….

Local governments also turn a blind eye to serious pollution problems out of self-interest. Officials sometimes have a direct financial stake in factories or personal relationships with their owners. And the local environmental protection bureaus tasked with guarding against such corruption must report to the local governments, making them easy targets for political pressure. In recent years, the Chinese media have uncovered cases in which local officials have put pressure on the courts, the press, or even hospitals to prevent the wrongdoings of factories from coming to light. (Just this year, in the province of Zhejiang, officials reportedly promised factories with an output of $1.2 million or more that they would not be subjected to government inspections without the factories’ prior approval.)…

…All countries suffer internal tugs of war over how to balance the short-term costs of improving environmental protection with the long-term costs of failing to do so. But China faces an additional burden. Its environmental problems stem as much from China’s corrupt and undemocratic political system as from Beijing’s continued focus on economic growth. Local officials and business leaders routinely — and with impunity — ignore environmental laws and regulations, abscond with environmental protection funds, and silence those who challenge them. Thus, improving the environment in China is not simply a matter of mandating pollution-control technologies; it is also a matter of reforming the country’s political culture. Effective environmental protection requires transparent information, official accountability, and an independent legal system. But these features are the building blocks of a political system fundamentally different from that of China today, and so far there is little indication that China’s leaders will risk the authority of the Communist Party on charting a new environmental course. Until the party is willing to open the door to such reform, it will not have the wherewithal to meet its ambitious environmental targets and lead a growing economy with manageable environmental problems.

It is a fascinating article and one can’t come away from reading it very confident that the air and water used in agriculture is of a standard acceptable to Americans, much less to organic consumers.

In our interview, Mr. See answers these concerns in an accurate, but not necessarily reassuring, manner:

In organic standards, this is not allowed as direct input.

In other words, the job of a certifier is not to evaluate the general quality of the environment. If the air is very polluted, it is polluted; the auditor is only looking at inputs. Yet this is probably no answer at all for a US organic consumer or for a buyer looking to reassure that consumer.

Second, it is well known that there is a culture of bribery in China. In fact, one of the major issues that has arisen in the past year is that although China will prosecute a government official for receiving bribes, it almost never will prosecute an individual for offering or paying bribes.

Mr. Lee and OCIA certainly have oversight and various procedures in place, but they are not operating on the assumption that bribes will be paid and taken — which is the only safe assumption to operate under.

And they don’t seem to be aggressively trying to find flaws in the system. The Japanese inspector whose notes we were given, as you can read here, was sent to China because of the allegations made in the Dallas Morning News article.

Yet his visit to China was strictly a matter of attempting to verify if they had a plan and were executing it. So when the issue was whether the fields were being fertilized with human waste — a common practice in China — he gives this report:

Overall consideration of the possibility to use Human waste:

  • In the Handling manual, it is mentioned that they prohibit using human waste.
  • In the 2006 Fertilization plan, it is mentioned that they prohibit using human waste.
  • On April 1st, they have an internal meeting with farmers. According to the minutes, it was discussed that human waste was prohibited material. So all attendee were informed of it.
  • On the compost making record, on the ingredient column, there was not mentioned the name of human waste.
  • When we visit pig farm, the pit of manure was segregated that of the human waste, so no contamination will seen.
  • At farmer’s residence, toilet is isolated. Not mixed with poultry or other animal manure.
  • At the compost storage place, there are not the marks of mixture human waste.

Considering the above phenomena, I didn’t find the definitive evidence of usage of human waste, and they understand the standard well.

However Sales Manager Cui Min said that for the family garden field at the residence place, farmers, as a custom, use human manure, but he insisted that it is clearly separated.

Obviously, if the real interest is determining what has been used in the soil, they would be doing soil testing.

Same thing with food safety issues, such as composting:

Regarding the way of making compost, they wrote down that temperature keeping between 55-75 degree centigrade, but they said it was not the result of measurement by thermometer but based on their experience; they know it by looking at vapor, in the winter and spring season — it is very cold in this province.

Also regarding [carbon/nitrogen] ratio, they don’t measure but by their experience they wrote it down. I told them that periodically they should measure it, especially when they change the manure source.

According to the interview, I think they know that they will use completely fermented compost only.

Of course, he should have taken measurements with thermometers to compare to the claims of the Chinese farmers.

Even the explanations don’t reassure:

Mr. Cui Min’s comment about the Dallas Morning News Interview.

After finished all inspection procedure, I asked about this theme. The followings are explanation by Mr. Cui Min.

About two months ago, around 14:00 he received a telephone call form Chinese women who is a correspondent of this publish. On that day, they took a big lunch and drank beer too much, so he was just going to taking a nap. Generally speaking he is a sales person and he is not in charge of organic operation, so it should be answered by Li Zhendong, who is an organic certification coordinator, but at that time he was absent so Cui Min replied to her.

The correspondent had strong Hong Kong dialect and a little bit difficult to understand her questions. The telephone interview continued so long for 15 — 20 minutes and the number of the questions was more than 20.

Because of this situation, he thought troublesome and replied in a slapdash manner. At this moment he doesn’t remember what kind of questions he was asked, and he doesn’t remember the exact statement he told about human waste, what kind question was, and what he replied.

At this exit interview, he explained that in this area people use human waste as compost but for family garden use in residential place. Like a commercial farming field, the area is so large and volume of compost should be so large. So they need not to use such a small amount human waste. For conventional farming, there is such company that gathers human waste and sells as compost. But Rizhao Huasai does not purchase any fertilizer from out source.

He is very angry that his comment was distorted by its article.

(This is my guess so here is not a settled idea, but that he may have confused a certified organic and a traditional natural farming (like using human waste). He knows that it is not a certified organic but traditional way of growing. And he uses the term of “organic” for this growing way too.)

Is the problem that after drinking “too much beer,” the worker misunderstood or, at least as reasonably, that the worker told the truth?

More broadly, if the culture is so accepting of conditions that violate organic standards, such as the use of human excrement, well, what are the chances that the workers will see violating such a rule as serious?

Mr. See repeats many times that the standards used in China are the same that OCIA uses in audits all over the world, including the US.

We are not necessarily 100% certain about the legitimacy of everyone with an organic certificate in the US, but it does seem to us that there are additional risks in operating in an environment like China.

How much do they pay these inspectors? Considering the product value and the poverty of the country and the affiliation between the Chinese inspectors and their countrymen farmers, it seems very likely that many inspectors can be encouraged to overlook things.

Besides, the overall system just doesn’t seem rigorous enough to prevent opportunistic, perhaps buying some non-organic product and co-mingling it to meet an order.

The whole thing struck us as problematic, so we turned to Jack Bayless of Alishan Organic Center in Japan. Jack is a Pundit reader and friend who describes his background this way:

Graduate of the University of Maine in Animal Vet Science worked at Harvard School of Public Health in toxicology research, Merrill Lynch & Co. as a broker, moved back to Maine to pursue back to land life of building, craft and art.

Left America in 1980 and ended up in Japan a couple years later. Exporting antiques to Europe and US and importing natural foods for small group of friends.

Married a dynamo from Alishan Mountain in Taiwan and started our food imports company as a mail order service. 20th Anniversary will be celebrated in 2008. Now an inporter, repacker, wholesaler, mail order, single retail shop and cafe along with an event center. Staff of 35. The bulk of business is the import/repack/wholesaler business but the others are very important in other ways.

Fay and I hold ourselves and staff to the rule “If it ain’t fun and satisfying it is time to move on”. Live on top of office with wife and partner Fay and two children age 15 & 13.

Japan has a reputation for tough food safety standards. Because of Jack’s deep involvement with organics, we asked him to do some digging for us and come up with an assessment of what the Japanese industry thinks about organics from China:

China is growing honest organic raw materials, but anyone who relies solely on an organic certificate shown by an exporter is on shaky ground.

Visiting the farm operation is important anywhere. In China doubly (triply) so. I know of screw ups and deceptions in both Japan and USA.

Many of the organic farms exporting to Japan are managed/supervised by on-site Japanese staff.

Others in the industry made the following remarks to me:

An importer of fresh JAS cert tropical fruits —

These two paragraphs are from Pundit articles:

My take is that Organics in China is overall unsafe and unreliable. When I asked through my interpreter if a shipper could provide organically produced product, the packinghouse manager went to his desk to retrieve a rubber stamp. The stamp simply said “ORGANIC”. I was quoted the same price for “organic” garlic as for the conventional product.

At a peeled garlic processing facility (actually an open-air, fly-infested shed adjacent to a malodorous drainage ditch), I observed workers dumping peeled garlic cloves into a large tub filled with a cloudy, viscous liquid. Upon inquiry about this step in processing, I was told that the tub was filled with a sulfite solution, which ensures that the cloves retain a bright white hue in shipping and handling. The packaging for this product was for the Japanese market, arguably the world’s most demanding market.

These expressions based on their experiences I think are a pretty good sample of the reality.

I believe that the only way to grow organics safely in China is if you have people on site permanently.

There are a number of European and even Japanese companies that are taking that approach. I think if you have the commitment and the resources to work that way, then it is possible to do organics there.

An importer of dried (beans, seeds) organic ingredients from China:

Know your supplier, get good things, don’t know your supply chain and you are in danger.

Everything from China is suspect in local market right now. Japan already had some scandals last year.

Jack also does explain that there is market concern, as he puts it: “We are getting calls from customers to confirm what if any ingredients in any of our products are exported from China.”

We appreciate Jack’s help as we appreciate Steve’s tip and Jeff and OCIA International’s time with us.

What we take from all this is that a mere certificate is not sufficient to assure a buyer of legitimate organic product from China. It is certainly not sufficient to assure a buyer that it is both technically organic and also grown in a healthy, clean environment.

So procurement of Chinese organics requires one to either have actual control of the production in China or a trusted supplier who has control of production in China.

Jim Provost, Managing Member of I Love Produce, started his business with his step-brother, Neil Millman, basing it on the contention that Americans can’t just buy from the cheapest bidder in China or from a broker in Los Angeles who got product from some unknown place.

Jim contributed to many of the articles we started this piece by listing, and he has explained that his company, with an office in China and feet on the ground, can serve as a defacto agent for the consumer or trade buyer.

Whether his degree of control is sufficient is a matter for each buying organization to ascertain. But economics is a powerful thing, and although there has been a setback for Chinese agricultural due to food safety concerns, we suspect that, in time, China will still be a produce giant.

China will actually owe a great debt to companies such as I Love Produce, investing now to raise standards in China.

Sometimes he even brings a bit of the Pundit to China. After we ran a lengthy interview with Dr. Ron Voss, an expert in garlic formerly with UC Davis, we said this:

As Dr. Voss points out, the Chinese respond to buyer demand. So someone like Jim Provost — or maybe someone like Wal-Mart — has to tell the Chinese authorities that all the garlic acreage destined for export must be EurepGAP-certified by respected western accreditors, and that all processing facilities need to be British Retail Consortium-certified, also by respected western accreditors.

This led Jim to send us this note:

I know that you highly respect European Standards. One of the organic processing facilities we work with in China is BRC (British Retail Consortium) Certified as well. Attached is their certificate. At this point their frozen organic vegetable products are BRC certified, but we will have fresh garlic and ginger under BRC very soon. Partly due to your encouragement, we are asking all of our China suppliers to obtain BRC certification.

Jim Provost
I Love Produce
Kelton, Pennsylvania

No certificate can be accepted as determinative but clearly these guys are trying. A lot of retailers have run away this year, but the economics of the situation dictate that they will probably be back one day. It is the kind of work that Jim is doing that is positioning his organization to be ready for that day.




PMA Education Foundation
Serious About Growing The Industry

Our piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Protocol Lesson For PMA Education Foundation Students, brought a number of responses, including this fiery one from one of the most important women in the produce industry, Lorri Koster of Mann Packing, who, among other things was the first woman to ever chair a national produce trade association when she headed up the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association:

The PMA Educational Foundation has several programs and the Pack Family/PMA Career pathways Fund Scholarships is just one. I also met many of the students and while I didn’t receive a lot of follow-up, at least two sent me a thank you via email (not entirely appropriate, but also not unusual these days).

The PMA Educational Foundation also sponsors the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation in honor of my late brother, Joe. I’ve had the pleasure for two years now meeting these culinary students, hosting field tours, and not all of them, but several, have kept in touch. It’s important to remember these programs are in their infancy and PMA and its leadership will continue to improve upon them.

I don’t appreciate the comment about those of us having “hundreds of thousands of dollars available” donating to this Foundation because it makes us “feel good.” Has this person seen our financials? I don’t think so. Our company doesn’t throw money around. The Foundation has a strong business plan. We thought about this very carefully and we feel it is important to reinvest in the industry.

And we want to honor my brother, Joe. So, yeah, I guess it makes us feel good, but at the end of the day these unique programs aren’t about making donors feel good. They are about growing our industry.

GOOD for PMA, the donors, volunteer leadership and mentors for stepping up to the plate.

I also don’t think it’s in the best interest of The Pundit’s readers to post diatribes like this without attaching a name to it. This person is passing some pretty serious judgment on some of the most well-respected organizations and leaders in this industry.
Each student is aware of the hardships of writing a thesis statement

Lorri A. Koster
Co-Chairman, Board of Directors
Vice President, Marketing
Mann Packing Co., Inc.
Salinas, California

The Pundit probably deserves a good slap with a wet noodle for letting the piece run as it did. Written communication, without the benefit of intonation or facial expression, can be confusing, and the author of that letter never intended to speak negatively of those who have made a commitment to the PMA Education Foundation and, thus, a commitment to the industry.

The author of that letter was actually speaking to the growing trend in philanthropy to Donor Involvement. At one point in time, companies and affluent individuals donated money and that was it. Now the trend is toward donors staying actively involved as they make sure their money is well spent.

Our correspondent was trying to urge those who donate money to be actively involved so that the money can be spent as effectively as possible.

In fact, the PMA Education Foundation and, specifically, The Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund program are perfect examples of Donor Involvement. Although the Pack family didn’t want to run the program day to day, they also didn’t just send a check and never check in.

Jay was constantly involved and made sure people who would protect his intent were involved from the first day of the Steering Committee to today, where he serves on the Board of Directors of the Foundation.

As we discussed in our piece, PMA Education Foundation Looks To Attract And Retain New Industry Talent, the Foundation has been running an initial fund-raising campaign, and Mann Packing generously donated a six-figure sum, contributing at the Diamond Level to the new campaign.

And, as Lorri attests in her letter, Mann Packing and Joe’s family have certainly been involved in helping to make the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation the important program it has become:

The Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation posthumously honors industry leader Joe Nucci and his significant contributions to the produce and foodservice industries. The scholarship program that bears his name connects produce and foodservice professionals to future culinary innovators. Through this all-expense-paid program, selected culinary students and faculty attend PMA’s Foodservice Conference & Expo in Monterey, California.

This past July, the PMA Education Foundation worked with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Johnson & Wales University and provided event scholarships to seven students and two faculty members from each school. While PMA worked with the CIA in the past, this was the first year working with Johnson & Wales University.

As part of this year’s program, students and faculty toured produce fields and facilities, attended conference workshops, networked with industry professionals, walked the exposition floor, and worked alongside celebrity chefs Walter Scheib and Anthony Bourdain. Six students, selected by their faculty, also acted as sous chefs during a live chef demonstration.

Joe Nucci
Joe Nucci, who passed away in July 2005 at the age of 40, believed deeply in our industry and its future. Born into a family of produce innovators, Joe was President of Mann Packing Company, Inc., and was scheduled to become PMA’s Chairman of the Board in October 2006. Joe’s life was defined by his innovative character and capability to inspire the next generation of leaders. Through this scholarship program, his legacy lives on.

This Pundit is proud to be part of the effort to honor Joe’s memory. Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, has sponsored the luncheon at the Golf Tournament used to raise money for the program since its inception, and the Pundit himself provided PMA’s Fresh Produce Manuals to all the students. We’ve also been effective in soliciting attendees to the event.

Here at the Pundit, we are fortunate to have many letter-writers in a position to sign their name. However, many important industry figures, especially some of the most important retailers, are not able by company policy or by situation to sign their name publicly. Of course, we can’t have crazy people making accusations, so the compromise we make is that we will protect people’s identity if requested — but the Pundit has to know exactly who wrote the letter.

Every single day we receive anonymous letters that we read and file away because we don’t print anonymous things, but we know who wrote that letter and the letter-writer is a reputable person who has had many important board positions with many important industry associations.

Even though it can be upsetting, we believe the industry gains more by hearing the honest thoughts of people through the Pundit than it would if their thoughts went unknown. Remember that the people would still have the thoughts; we just wouldn’t have any opportunity to consider their opinions in program development.

And to the substance of our contributor’s suggestion that the students get some training on how to best take advantage of an opportunity such as PMA — that seems like a pretty reasonable idea.

Obviously one company and its report is anecdotal, but we received enough feedback after that piece to say this: It appears that the mentors mostly report excellent follow-up from the students; many mention follow-up thank you cards and long term relationships.

The exhibitors, though, do seem to report a different and lower level of follow-up than do the exhibitors at the PMA Foodservice Conference, where the Nucci Scholars are brought.

This might be an interesting thing for the Foundation to research, but we would suspect the following:

Culinary School is a kind of trade school, so, almost by definition, a student at culinary school has a more defined career path in mind. If Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS offers a free newsletter for chefs on how to use fresh produce in innovative ways, we will probably get a high degree of the Nucci Scholars to sign up for it.

The Pack students aren’t as certain they will have a need for anything related to produce. In fact, the trend around the country has been that the old departments of Agricultural Economics are renaming themselves with names such as the Department of Applied Economics. Even the American Agricultural Economists Association is intending to change its name.

As a practical matter, another name for “applied economics” is business. This means that, increasingly, the Pack program is drawing from what are really business schools. So these kids have real options. They don’t have to work in produce. They can work for P&G or Goldman Sachs.

Our correspondent the other day saw the non-responsiveness as something that requires training to correct. We agree, since even if you are actually going to go to law school or to work in subprime mortgages, the smart path is to make friends everywhere, keep up all contacts, etc.

But when we heard the story of non-responsiveness, we thought it was one of two things:

One possibility is it is just a cultural issue. The Pundit recently went to a big party for a teenager and received back a pre-printed thank you card. The Pundit’s Mom never would have allowed such a thing.

Another possibility is that the produce industry has to work harder, and the lack of follow-up was a sign of indifference. Maybe the students took a look at the produce industry or at least this company and were not yet sold.

Over time we hope the Foundation will start to collect good statistics on how many students enter the produce trade, how many stay, etc., with students from around the world in the program those won’t necessarily be easy numbers to collect.

Our gut is that although the produce industry is thrilling for those involved, many outsiders won’t catch the appeal. Especially students who don’t want to live in areas such as Salinas that have large produce representation.

Our best bet is probably for the Foundation to start a world class internship program. Collect resumes from students, formalize a program, perhaps arrange in some areas for summer housing in vacant college dorms.

The visit to PMA is fantastic, but we have to get the students working in the industry.

We thank Lorri for her letter and the opportunity it gives us to clarify what our contributor intended to communicate, highlight the importance of the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation and reflect upon how the changing role of Ag Economic programs might impact the way future Pack students view the industry.




Good Advice For 2008

As we head into Christmas and the end of the year, we thought we would take the opportunity to revisit with Randy Pausch. We ran two pieces featuring Randy; first, Last Chance, Literally, To Teach Life Lessons, which told the story of a young Carnegie Mellon professor who has been diagnosed with a fatal illness but who is given the chance to deliver one last lecture and included a video excerpt from the lecture. Then we ran, Last Chance Once More, which featured the lecture in full.

If you didn’t get a chance to hear the lecture, click on one of the links above. Randy is a family man with a wife and young children but is smart, upbeat and inspiring. Everyone who has seen the video is deeply moved.

Professor Pausch, with the clock ticking, is moving his family back to Virginia as his wife’s family is there. Showing the rare grace that defines exceptional people, with only a few months before his health is expected to collapse, Randy Pausch exhibits a wry sense of humor and agrees to give a lecture at Mr. Jefferson’s University, the University of Virginia, where he taught before Carnegie-Mellon. The subject: Time Management. You can watch the video below:

And you can look at his slides as you watch the video here.

The Professor also provides a useful guide to facilitate group interaction:

Tips for Working in Groups

By Randy Pausch, for the Building Virtual Worlds course at Carnegie Mellon, Spring 1998

Meet people properly. It all starts with the introduction. Then, exchange contact information, and make sure you know how to pronounce everyone’s names. Exchange phone #s, and find out what hours are acceptable to call during.

Find things you have in common. You can almost always find something in common with another person, and starting from that baseline, it’s much easier to then address issues where you have differences. This is why cities like professional sports teams, which are socially galvanizing forces that cut across boundaries of race and wealth. If nothing else, you probably have in common things like the weather.

Make meeting conditions good. Have a large surface to write on, make sure the room is quiet and warm enough, and that there aren’t lots of distractions. Make sure no one is hungry, cold, or tired. Meet over a meal if you can; food softens a meeting. That’s why they “do lunch” in Hollywood.

Let everyone talk. Even if you think what they’re saying is stupid. Cutting someone off is rude, and not worth whatever small time gain you might make. Don’t finish someone’s sentences for him or her; they can do it for themselves. And remember: talking louder or faster doesn’t make your idea any better.

Check your egos at the door. When you discuss ideas, immediately label them and write them down. The labels should be descriptive of the idea, not the originator: “the troll bridge story,” not “Jane’s story.”

Praise each other. Find something nice to say, even if it’s a stretch. Even the worst of ideas has a silver lining inside it, if you just look hard enough. Focus on the good, praise it, and then raise any objections or concerns you have about the rest of it.

Put it in writing. Always write down who is responsible for what, by when. Be concrete. Arrange meetings by email, and establish accountability. Never assume that someone’s roommate will deliver a phone message. Also, remember that “politics is when you have more than 2 people” with that in mind, always CC (carbon copy) any piece of email within the group, or to me, to all members of the group. This rule should never be violated; don’t try to guess what your group mates might or might not want to hear about.

Be open and honest. Talk with your group members if there’s a problem, and talk with me if you think you need help. The whole point of this course is that it’s tough to work across cultures. If we all go into it knowing that’s an issue, we should be comfortable discussing problems when they arise — after all, that’s what this course is really about. Be forgiving when people make mistakes, but don’t be afraid to raise the issues when they come up.

Avoid conflict at all costs. When stress occurs and tempers flare, take a short break. Clear your heads, apologize, and take another stab at it. Apologize for upsetting your peers, even if you think someone else was primarily at fault; the goal is to work together, not start a legal battle over whose transgressions were worse. It takes two to have an argument, so be the peacemaker.

Phrase alternatives as questions. Instead of “I think we should do A, not B,” try “What if we did A, instead of B?” That allows people to offer comments, rather than defend one choice.

The single most important slide in the presentation is an adaptation of a concept that Stephen R. Covey introduced in his The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic.

But before Randy Pausch could steal it from Stephen Covey, the Pundit and his friend Stan Silverzweig stole it from Stephen Covey and we presented it all around the country.

Professor Pausch’s adaptation looks like this:


The basic insight is to understand that most of us spend all our time on things that Professor Pausch calls “Due Soon” — these are the urgent things in life, but not necessarily the most important.

Randy Pausch says the trick is that obviously you have to first do the things that are both important and due soon and, of course, you have to do last the things that are not important and not due soon. But he says most people mess up because after they are done with Important/Due soon tasks, they go on to Unimportant but due soon tasks as opposed to those important tasks that are not due soon.

So Randy Pausch emphasizes maintaining a “to do” list not in the order things are due but in the four quadrant model on this graphic.

Our experience in teaching this content was that more than reordering is required. The key to success is clearly getting time to invest in the Important/Not Due Soon quadrant. We find you really have to look through your life and eliminate time one spends on not important and not due soon things — like watching late night TV.

This is an enormously powerful concept. The reason a personal trainer works for so many people is because it transforms exercise from the Important/Not Due Soon quadrant into the Important/Due Soon quadrant. If you can afford it and want to spend the money, that is a way of dealing with the situation. Another option, though, is to find a way to put more time into Quadrant 2 activities.

The video has many other tips and carries added poignancy because of the situation of the speaker. It struck us as a useful thing to run as the year winds down. New Year’s resolutions are upon us and most people don’t keep them.

This is not a character flaw; it is a function of the fact that, typically speaking, there were reasons that you didn’t follow the resolution last year — whether it was to work out an hour a day, read a novel a month, go on vacation with your sweetheart once a quarter or something else, there was a shortage — usually of time or money — that held you back.

Better time management is thus crucial for us all to realize our dreams. As Randy Pausch reminds us on one of his slides:

Well worth thinking about as we head into 2008.




Hawaii Five-0

The Pundit is leaving Saturday for a special trip. We’ve had occasion to discuss the Pundit Poppa and Pundit Mom in this space before. Now we can combine them as their 50th wedding anniversary is coming up in January, and to celebrate that as well as the Pundit Pop’s recovery from leukemia via a stem cell transplant from his identical twin brother, the whole Prevor clan — almost 40 strong — is heading to the Grand Wailea in Maui for our own personal celebration.

Fifty years together isn’t that common in our society and as every parent learns fast, children learn more from what they see than from what you say. The Pundit and his siblings have been blessed with an example of love and devotion, of mutual commitment and tenacity, that has provided a daily dose of inspiration whenever things have been tough.

Between now and New Year’s, as is our practice each year, we will be running Pundit Classics — selections of columns we think are worth a second look. Of course, you can always use the search function or can use the archives to catch columns you may have missed during the year. And we will keep our eyes and ears open if a special edition is called for.

If you are in Maui over the holidays, feel free to come have a Mai-Tai with us. Wherever you are, please do this Pundit a favor and raise a glass to Roslyn and Michael Prevor. They danced together at Mom’s Sweet Sixteen back in Brooklyn, and they have managed to hold hands as they have traveled long and far from where they came. They have seen a world transformed — space travel, the internet, CDs, DVDs, stem cell transplants — while they built a family out of pure love.

The Jr. Pundits and the Pundit nephews and nieces will all be there, and we hope they will get a lot of time with Grandma and Grandpa because what better way is there for mere parents to teach their children about the power that comes from deciding to not give up.

This Pundit doesn’t give up either, but the occupational hazard of Punditry is excessive intellectual output, so we are looking forward to recharging the batteries and coming back bursting with new ideas to help this industry move ahead in 2008.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all.




And Finally, The Funnies Section…

There is an Alaskan writer named Chad Carpenter who produces a comic strip called Tundra. He must know that the Jr. Pundits are obsessed with Frosty the Snowman, for he sent along some produce humor perfect for the 5-year-old set:

 

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