December, 2006

Fruits of Thought

The World Turned Upside Down


If buttercups buzz'd after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

On Oct, 19, 1781, 8,000 or so sullen, despairing British soldiers marched out of Yorktown, VA, where they had been besieged by the American army and French navy.

At that time the vanquished were allowed to march in uniform with colors unfurled to surrender their arms. The British would pass through a double line of victors. On the right were the French, resplendent in uniforms of European finery, and on the left the Continentals — the American forces — often bereft of uniform or proper arms, toes peaking through worn shoes.

The British were, at the time, the greatest military power in the world. To be defeated by anyone was a horrible embarrassment, and the defeated British soldiers cried and pouted.

The British officers ordered their soldiers to look only to their right, to the French, as if a great European force might defeat the British in a battle, but never the ragtag Americans.

America’s true friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, would have none of that and ordered the Fife and Drum Corps to play. As the startled British turned to identify where the noise was coming from, they found themselves staring face-to-face with the Americans who had defeated them in this battle and would, ultimately, win the war.

Although the war would drag on for two more years, there was palpable sense that the world everyone had known had changed forever at Yorktown.

As the British marched between the American and French lines to surrender their weapons, it is said that the British Fife and Drum Corps searched for music appropriate to the occasion and played an old English ballad called The World Turned Upside Down.

For the produce industry, 2006 will go down as the year in which something palpable also happened.

We were always the good guys. If times were tough or things weren’t progressing as we would have liked, we could still jump out of bed each morning knowing we were bringing something good to the world, something healthful, something to let people live longer and in better shape, something to give people precious moments with their families and friends. What could be better than that?

So to have headline after headline, day after day, pointing to illness, hospitalization, kidney failure, even death from our products, it was enough to give an entire industry cognitive dissonance.

When did we get these black hats?

The 9/11 terrorist attack on America led to increased concern for food security, which led to funding-enhanced mechanisms for tracking foodborne illnesses. This summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention upgraded its system for identifying such illness. With this new technology, outbreaks that previously would have gone unnoticed as local incidents of food poisoning are now being tied together into national outbreaks of foodborne illness.

This won’t go away. Additional upgrades are scheduled on the national level and at the state laboratories that do much of the work.

Our understanding of the way the world works was upended. Most of us naively thought that if you do all the things you are supposed to do, you can stay out of a courtroom. But now we’ve learned about “strict liability” and that it doesn’t matter if you follow all the rules. Some errant bug you didn’t even know was there can bankrupt a business.

It is a blow, but it reminds us of Winston Churchill’s speech to the Canadian Parliament and a later generation of French officers. Churchill reported the French generals gave their government bad advice and so France sought a separate peace with Germany. When Churchill told the French the British would fight on alone regardless of their decision, the French generals told their government, “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken."

Churchill stood before the Parliament in defiance and proclaimed, “Some chicken; some neck.”

He also said something that seems appropriate as we wrestle with these issues. For the obstacles in our paths will be overcome. This industry was built by immigrants who planted where there was nothing, who sold fruit from wooden carts. Churchill said, we “…are a tough and hardy lot. We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”

And neither are we.

All across the industry, committees are meeting, officials conferring and solutions being sought. New laws will be passed, regulations adopted and requirements established to sell many accounts.

In this world turned upside down, each of us will have new responsibilities toward food safety. In this sense, our companies and our jobs have changed forever.

But there is a candle in every darkness, and we will wind up selling consumers purer, cleaner fruits and vegetables than ever before. Call it a New Year’s Resolution, and keep the white hats ready to wear. We’ll need them again soon.  pb