April, 2016

Fruits of Thought

Belgium In Our Thoughts

I often wonder what happened to Mrs. Hermanns. Her company is lost in memory, but when this author cut his eye-teeth in the produce industry, one of the shippers I took care of was a Mrs. Hermanns from Belgium. She shipped us Belgian endive on consignment.

We were the only company she worked with on consignment. As a young man, I did all I could to build demand. I remember working in my kitchen in a small New York apartment braising Belgian endive so I could reach out to chefs with usage ideas. It was a tough battle to build demand for this comparatively specialized and expensive product, and we had a competitive dilemma. Seymour Schnell of H. Schnell & Co. — who, it was whispered, was the richest man in the New York produce market — had sufficient business to bring in 20-foot containers of Belgian endive by sea, while we only could receive smaller volume via air shipments.

I have often wondered if she was still in business. Is she retired? Back in those pre-email days when even international travel and phone calls were expensive, we worked together for years without ever meeting — not even a phone call that I can recall. It was countless Telex messages going back and forth. We have long since lost touch, yet I liked to imagine her enjoying a nice retirement; perhaps her children took on the business, and in some small way, our efforts to sell her endive helped secure her future.

It was months ago we planned our report on the Belgian produce industry and the possibilities for U.S. retailers and distributers in handling Belgian produce, which you will find on pages 88 and 89. Mira Slott, special projects editor at PRODUCE BUSINESS and PerishablePundit.com, traveled with Gill McShane, managing editor at ProduceBusinessUK.com, to build stronger editorial relationships and gain a greater understanding of the diversity and professionalism of the Belgian trade. The articles we ran are in many ways celebrations of good people, good produce and an openness to trade with opportunities to grow an industry and feed the world in a healthy and delicious manner.

As we go to press, though, horrid terrorist attacks have hit Belgium. The Mabru wholesale market (the Hunts Point Produce Market of Brussels) was temporarily closed for security reasons, along with much of the city and country after attacks at both the Maelbeek metro station near central Brussels and Zaventem international airport. The metro explosion occurred right next door to the offices of Freshfel, the European produce trade association. The Thon hotel, where I’ve stayed to attend Freshfel events, was converted to an emergency triage/first aid center. The top Freshfel executives and staff were locked in their offices, thankfully all unscathed, but also unable to leave as the city was placed on lockdown.

The news reports strike this author as bordering on bizarre. USA Today ran a headline, “Terrorist Attacks in Brussels Send Shock Waves Around the World.” Yet, to us, the clarifying insight of these attacks is that they are not shocking at all: We don’t know every detail, but it is clear there is a jihadist element, spawned from ISIS and the anarchy of the Syrian Civil War, that is intent on attacking the West and already has a deep network in Europe — especially in Belgium and France. Two Belgian brothers who are responsible for the terrorist attacks in Belgium also had clear ties to the Paris attacks this past November. A third man, believed to be the second suicide bomber at the airport, was exchanging text messages with the gunmen at the Bataclan theatre when the attacks in Paris were being executed.

We can, of course, critique the Belgian police and security authorities, as well as broader European institutions. Turkey claims it deported one of the brothers to Europe and informed authorities he was dangerous and had ties to terrorist groups. It appears a lot of work that should have been done, clearly, was not.

There are larger issues, though. It is not clear governments in Europe and North America understand this is a kind of war, and the restrictions we put on normal police activity simply won’t suffice to keep the peace against this enemy. It appears, despite the Turkish report, Ibrahim El Bakraoui was not arrested or pursued, because he had no known history of terrorist attacks.

That is good for police work, but not war. Soldiers are the enemy — not because they have done anything to us — but simply because they are part of an enemy force. Many dreams, such as the Schengen Agreement for free movement of people with passports and border checks, must be deferred.

More broadly, governments must be honest with their people that they cannot be protected solely by playing defense. Groups, like ISIS, have to be deprived of resources such as land to operate on, oil to sell and much more. This may take great sacrifice in blood and treasure, and an active effort to wage war on ISIS will surely involve boots on the ground in the Middle East.

But if we are not prepared to defend our own civilization, who will? If we are not prepared to do what we must to ensure the safety of our people, who will?

Our thought that there is opportunity in the Belgian produce industry was, initially, just a thought. Now, trying to support the beleaguered country is a moral obligation, and we encourage all to seek ways to help. We certainly will do so with our resources.

We had many wake-up calls. Now, let’s hope our governments wake up. As for Mrs. Hermanns, I pray she is alive and well — braising some endives for dinner. pb