This column first appeared in sister publication perishablepundit.com
Down below… the second episode of our new Podcast. We were overwhelmed to receive some exceedingly generous feedback on our launch:
- I had to tell you how incredible you are. I listened to your podcast, “Destructive protests hurt the ones most in need”. Wow ... you took on an incredibly difficult subject with grace, compassion, historical reference and a great dollop of common sense ... of which we are all greatly in need It was very moving, brave and inspiring. Don’t suppose we could talk YOU into running for President of the US?? "Thanks again for sharing your brilliance." — Dawn Gray, Dawn Gray Global Consulting, Vancouver, Canada
- "Thank you for once again for creating a journalism masterpiece.We are most blessed to be able to learn from you. The podcast was outstanding! Many thanks and best regards to all the family! — Harris S. Cutler, Race-West Company, Inc., Philip L. Cutler Building, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania
- "Great start Jim! Very good podcast! You look younger without the beard!" — Gene Harris, Senior Purchasing Manager, Denny’s Inc., Spartanburg, South Carolina
- "PS. Your “announcer” [Ken Whitacre] did a great job too! Different medium, same firm command of the obvious. The Podcast says in 7 minutes what has not been said on cable news in 7 days." — John Pandol, Director of Special Projects, Pandol Bros., Inc., Delano, California
- "As always, your no BS, tell-it-like-it-is style of analysis hits home. Congrats on your first podcast, and I look forward to listening to many more." — Lisa Cork, Fresh Produce Strategist, Auckland, New Zeland
- "Great work Jim. I have been an avid PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine reader for years, now it’s great to be able to watch and listen to your thoughts and insights." — Michael Simonetta, CEO, Perfection Fresh Australia, Sydney, Australia
- "Love it. Like the PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine editorials, but better!" — Lawrence Hopman, President, Hopman Flower Farms, Brantford, Ontario Canada
- "Like the Podcast move Jim! Looks interesting and just on time. Never stop surprising the industry! Looking forward to more — good luck!" — Dudu Ivri, Farming Grapes, Marketing and Strategy, Ashkelon, Israel
- Glad to see the Pundit on a podcast and look forward to the keen insight as always." — Joe McGuire, Chief Executive Officer, Pure Green Farms, South Bend, Indiana
- "After a “must-read” for our industry, now a “must-hear”. Great work Jim! Congrats." — Gustavo Yentzen, General Manager, Yentzen Group, Santiago, Chile
- "What a fantastic development to have you lead our industry (once again) in an exchange of views regarding the broader context of the produce business. This is timely and necessary. ¡Te felicito!" — Gualberto J. Rodríguez, Chairman at Grupo Navis LLC, Managing Partner at Semillero Ventures LLC, Former President, Caribbean Produce Exchange, Inc., Catano, Puerto Rico.
- "Thanks for the insights, Jim! Great listen!" — Adolf Kieviet, Freshworld Pty Ltd., Stellenbosch, South Africa
- "This Podcast is just amazing and the need of this hour!" — Nitin Agrawal, Managing Director, Euro Fruits India, Mumbai, India
- "Great work Jim! As always ... extremely professional, spot-on accurate and very enlightening. Keep up this great service to our industry." — Nic Jooste, Nic Jooste Immersed, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
- "Watching from Japan, the tragedy of America imploding — your podcast and comments added many points I have not seen in the general media. Good on ya! Taking up the issue of food desert and lack of inner-city opportunity showed how it is all connected. I very much look forward to further podcasts." — John (Jack) Bayles, CEO, Alishan, Hidaka, Saitama, Japan
- "Congratulations on starting this podcast. I am thankful for your impactful ideas, perspectives, and analysis." — Philip Brooks, Founder and Chief Coaching Officer
- Fresh Potential, LLC, White Bear Lake, Minnesota
- "Excellent Jim. It is always good to hear your views, which help the industry understand more of what is happening. Your views are very well thought through and very thought-provoking." — George Beach, Mudwalls Farm Ltd, Alcester, Warwickshire, United Kingdom
- "Congratulations on venturing out into podcasts — another string to the already impressive bow! I'm looking forward to your thoughts as the produce industry continues to rally around as we see the (and I hate myself for saying it) 'new normal' in this COVID world and other hot topics — elections, changing labour forces and an area close to my heart even as an Expat, Brexit." — Chris Cowan
- Insight Director, Formerly with Deloitte, Westminster Forum Projects and Kantar Worldpanel, Singapore
- "Great Podcast Jim. Congratulations on kicking this off. Looking forward to your informative weekly podcasts." —Winstone Chee, Managing Director,Altitude Fresh, Shenzhen City, Guangdong, China
Of course, just because people have found value in the new Perishable Pundit Podcast doesn’t mean they necessarily agree with everything we say. Our email in-box has been filled with lots of questioning, debate and discussion. For example, Gualberto J. Rodriguez, whose kind comment and good wishes you can see above, also let us know he had different thoughts:
“About podcast #1, I respect and disagree with your perspective on the protests…
If you can recall a time when you have been under the boot of a system that's not respecting your fundamental well-being, it's hard to ask the person under the boot to come out from under the boot caring for it. There's a natural rage that comes from feeling truly abused. Not to justify the riots, but I do feel to move forward on racism, we need to seek to understand and be compassionate with all sides. My POV.”
Gualberto and the Pundit go way back. In fact, our families were trading produce in Puerto Rico before either of us were born! Now the Pundit is thrilled to have the opportunity to help the world recognize the important work that Gualberto is doing. We have chronicled some of his achievements in pieces such as:
In Great Turmoil Is Hidden Great Opportunity
Is Now The Time To Invest In Puerto Rico’s Agricultural Sector?
Gualberto Rodriguez Of Caribbean Produce Exchange Tells Us Why He’s ‘All In’ At The Global Trade Symposium
And, just recently:
Miraculously Spared From Puerto Rico’s Devastating Hurricanes And Earthquake, Caribbean Produce Exchange Overcame Years Of Tribulation To Prepare For Moments Like Today…
Now Administers $107-Million Farmers To Families Food Box Program
We have also invited Gualberto to address the industry at our live events: Gualberto Rodriguez Of Caribbean Produce Exchange Makes Compelling Case For Puerto Rico's Ag At The New York Produce Show And Conference
We will address some of Gualberto’s thoughts in future podcasts and columns, but wanted to make sure everyone knows that this Pundit loves a good debate and would love to hear from you.
We actually think one of the most regrettable and dangerous parts of the current situation is that many people of good will, who could contribute to solutions to serious problems, instead feel obliged to keep quiet less they, their families or their business get attacked by today’s cancel culture. If you have thoughts, comments or suggestions for future podcasts, please do email us at [email protected].
The latest Pundit podcast deals with COVID-19 in the context of our society’s ability to handle risk.
The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece signed by both the provost and president of Cornell University explaining the decision to reopen Cornell to residential instruction this fall.
Not surprisingly, the piece is thoughtful and thorough. The gist of their argument is that, at a school like Cornell, where many students live off campus in apartments in “Collegetown” and other parts of Ithaca, New York, by opening the school to physical attendance — as opposed to all online education — the school maintains authority.
It can compel students to be tested for the coronavirus every five days, demand the students wear masks, ensure the spacing of chairs in class is socially distant, reduce the density of housing and much more.
Relying on an epidemiological modeling effort headed up by Cornell professor Peter Frazier, the authors claim that, in many cases, schools that “play it safe” by moving classes all on line will wind up having more cases of COVID-19, more hospitalizations and more deaths among the people in their community — students, faculty, staff — than schools that open up and utilize their authority to test and enforce behavior.
This argument seems well researched and is probably true. Although it is not certainly true. After all, maybe young adults forced to socially distance themselves all day may be inclined to get close at night. Of course, it comes off a little elitist as the same argument should apply to everyone, not just university communities.
If the government ordered citizens to be tested every five days, compelled those who tested positive to be quarantined for two weeks, ordered social distancing on penalty of prison, etc., then there would be less spread of COVID-19. If avoiding COVID-19 is so important, why shouldn’t people who don’t go to college get the same effort made to protect them?
Of course, it is not 100% clear that seeking to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is the right direction. It may not even be possible. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, has put it this way: “We have to understand that many people will be infected. The consensus among experts is that 60 to 70 percent of the population will be infected as long as this remains the situation.”
In other words, despite our hopes, since there has never been a vaccine against a coronavirus, we have to expect that this problem will not magically go away. We are reminded that although therapies have dramatically improved, diseases such as HIV continue to exist without a vaccine being developed despite decades of effort.
The whole situation is an extension of what we have seen in the food industry for decades — a massive expression of a society that has become unable to deal with risk. The Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed piece by this author, titled Lettuce Try Not To Panic, dealing with the risk of eating romaine lettuce during an outbreak in 2018.
This was a near hysterical situation, with the government effectively closing down the Romaine lettuce industry by urging that “U.S. consumers not eat any romaine lettuce, and retailers and restaurants not serve or sell any” until the E. coli outbreak was resolved.
What caused this extraordinary recommendation by the US government?. This is what we wrote in the midst of the crisis:
…the odds that eating a serving of romaine will make you sick are about 1 in 11 million, and the odds it will put you in the hospital are less than 1 in 28 million. To put this in perspective, the probability of getting a royal flush in poker is dozens of times as great, at 1 in 649,740, and the probability of an amateur hitting a hole-in-one in golf is hundreds of times as great, at 1 in 12,000. If you are that risk-averse, you should stay away from dogs—the lifetime odds of getting killed by a dog attack are about 1 in 112,000. Even the odds of getting struck by lightning in a particular year are higher than 1 in a million.
To put it another way: If this outbreak were active every day, and you ate one salad a day, on average you would be hospitalized for E. coli once every 77,000 years.
And this likely overstates the problem. In past food-related E. coli outbreaks, the people hospitalized tended to be those with weakened immune systems such as the very old, the very young, and patients undergoing stem-cell transplants or chemotherapy. These groups are often advised by their doctors to avoid eating foods that may contain pathogens anyway. The odds of otherwise healthy people facing hospitalization is even lower than this infinitesimal amount. The CDC never actually discloses the risks it so fervently advises avoiding, perhaps because it would be laughed at if it did.
How does the risk of eating Romaine lettuce compare to COVID-19? Well, for women under 44 years of age and men under 39 years of age — which is basically the entire student body of most universities — the United Kingdom has published observed population fatality rates and found that the rate is less than 0.00!
So, we are off in the third decimal place or less on every five-year age cohort from 0 to 49 in women and 0 to 44 in men. Remember that whatever deaths might occur are often related to co-morbidities — in other words, the very unfortunate child who has cancer or a heart condition and, also, gets COVID-19.
Even for the working adults beyond the age of 49 among women and beyond 44 among men, the percentage numbers for COVID-19 deaths run from 0.01% to 0.08% in five-year cohorts; with men, from 60 to 64, being the most endangered at 0.08%. Again, a very high percentage of these deaths are in people with co-morbidities — diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc.
As the country is consumed with the Black Lives Matter protests, we need to consider what has led to this movement taking off at this particular time.
Surely, part of the motivation is that the general philosophy of lockdowns serves the interests of two distinct groups — older people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and those who are already financially set.
The oldest active NFL player is Tom Brady at 42 years old. The average age of an NFL player is a little over 26 years old and, typically, players are only pros for three or four years. Even the average Pro-Bowl-nominated player only has an NFL career of 12 years.
If you go to all 18-year-olds dreaming of a pro-football career and tell them there is a chance, but less than 0.00% chance, that they will get the disease and then die from it, almost every player will want to play. They would probably say the same if the risk was 1% or higher.
This is their shot. We should let them take it.
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Most parents, and most employers, are thinking about school and what will happen in September. In PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, we ran a column titled Let College Students Go To School, which laid out the data in relation to college students:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided five COVID-19 pandemic planning scenarios. The first four represent the lower and upper bounds of disease severity and viral transmissibility, and the fifth scenario is the “best estimate, based on latest surveillance data and scientific knowledge.” As this piece is written, this is based on data received by the CDC prior to 4/29/2020.
The CDC created this to help in public health preparedness and planning. The data does not constitute a prediction and, certainly, these things are subject to change as more data comes in. Still, it is the most up-to-date assessment of the situation by the most knowledgeable people in the country, and the numbers are striking:
It should be noted that even these small numbers overstate the risk for the average healthy person. These large cohorts, defined by age, include people with cancer and diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. So a healthy person will have an even lower risk of dying than is represented here.
In addition, it is important to recognize that these numbers represent fatality rates for people who actually got the COVID-19 virus! An overwhelming majority of Americans have not gotten COVID-19, and among those who have, surely everyone has not always taken the optimal safety path. In other words, an individual who elected to self-quarantine or, put another way, an individual who prioritized not getting COVID-19 — and so ordered groceries online, avoided social contact, etc. — would have lower chances of getting the virus and thus of dying of the virus.
In the United Kingdom the government publishes weekly death rates by age group. Though they change each week, the basic format is similar. The deaths heavily fall among the elderly. The bar graph at right shows the number of deaths registered by age group for England and Wales.
Note that this is NOT showing the percentage of each age group that died; it shows the actual number of deaths. Since there are relatively few people over 90 years old, for example, the percentage of deaths in this age group is far higher than in any other age cohort. Although we don’t have good statistics, it is highly likely that most of the elderly also had some pre-existing health condition.
These numbers speak loudly as to how society needs to progress. For example, there is nothing in these numbers to support decisions of institutions, such as the California State University system, to declare that almost all classes must be online.
Remember that every decision has many impacts. It is unlikely that all these 18-to-22-year-old college students will live in isolation. So if the fear is that these young people will pass COVID-19 onto others, the data indicates it is better that they pass it onto other 18-22 year-olds. If they are living at home and pass it on to parents or grandparents, the odds of a fatality resulting are far higher than if they lived among 18-to-22-year-old students.
Indeed, rather than closing down, the data indicates that colleges and universities should be figuring out how to stay open! Don’t send the kids back home for Thanksgiving; let them celebrate at school. Intersession? Well, do an intersession class session and keep the students in the dorms and on campus.
There are reasonable accommodations colleges and universities can and should make for the pandemic in a situation such as this. More rigorous checkups, frequent testing, restricting access to campus, allowing older faculty and staff to work remotely.
Within colleges and universities, however, the risk to students is so small — especially if the students have been vetted against pre-existing medical conditions — that the world is better off having them stay together, building friendships, learning, participating in the full range of activities — plays, sports, student government, etc.
As a society, we must do all we can to open opportunities for young people. As students, they are the future, and it is both wrong and unfair to demand they sacrifice their youth and opportunities.
The risk is so small, the accommodations that can be made so simple, that the righteous path is so very clear.
College students are just part of the issue. Primary and secondary school students have even less of a chance of being symptomatic for COVID-19. Of course, with these students you have an issue of their going home to their parents every day, which creates separate risks. With college students in residential campuses, that risk doesn’t exist.
Oddly, many colleges seem to be focused on the idea of sending college students home early by ending the semester of residential instruction on Thanksgiving. This strikes us as far more likely to spread the virus than anything they could do. Residential schools should consider doing on-campus holiday celebrations along with a winter session that will keep students on campus over the holidays.
Even if the plan of staying on campus through winter is just an option for those who have grandparents and others living at home or visiting over the holidays, this is more likely to prevent the more dangerous transmission to elderly family members than requiring students to leave campus and go back home.