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Gary Acuff wants to know: Where do you put your chopsticks?

SALT LAKE CITY — What do Rock Hudson, Joe Walsh and Isaac Newton have in common?

Stumped? Then you weren’t at the Ivan Parkin Lecture last night at the International Association of Food Protection conference and meeting.

Gary R. Acuff, professor of food microbiology at Texas A&M, delivered the lecture that kicks off the annual event. More than 3,000 people from around the world are in attendance this week. Attendees include researchers, regulators, students, and representatives of food companies and related businesses. Acuff has been attending since he joined IAFP in 1982.

Having titled his lecture “Where do you put your chopsticks?” Acuff had the audience wondering if he might be getting a little personal with that question. He didn’t explain until the end of his talk. The main theme for Acuff was the importance of food safety professionals helping those in the next generation find their way.

He spoke of heroes and superstars, of microbiology and mentors, describing the future of food safety using his own experiences to illustrate the big difference a little attention can make in a student’s life. One person Acuff credits for helping him is Carl Vanderzant, who was a professor at A&M when Acuff was working on his masters and doctorate.

Vanderzant had a photographic memory that mesmerized students. He always had time for Acuff and almost always had the answers. When he didn’t have the answer, Vanderzant had a go-to guy, Don Splittstoesser at Cornell. How anyone could have more answers than Vanderzant was beyond Acuff’s comprehension. So when he had the opportunity to meet him he was amazed. But not because Splittstoesser’s brain power.

The great man, the brilliant researcher, the internationally respected Splittstoesser took time to actually talk with Acuff. Splittstoesser asked him about his area of interest, his research, his hopes and plans for his future. Acuff couldn’t believe the sincere, genuine interest the older and wiser man showed. The conversation lasted only a few minutes.

And then something unbelievable happened.

“He told me to give him a call if I thought he could help me with something,” Acuff said.

His mentor’s go-to guy had just given him permission to call. Acuff already felt privileged that Vanderzant had taken him under his wing. With Splittstoesser’s gracious handshake and invitation to reconnect Acuff was over the moon. These superstars of food safety, these heroes of microbiology didn’t stay in their labs or atop pedestals built by their students. They talked to him.

“In the words of Joe Walsh, they were just ordinary average guys,” Acuff said. “We all need to be aware of the significance of mentoring.”

He encouraged the IAFP members and attendees who already have secure positions and reputations to literally reach out to the student members and attendees at the annual meeting. It makes a difference, he said, adding that such relationships helped grow IAFP over the years.

“We have the chance to pass this along,” he said. “Be intentional about it. Ask young people about their research. Seek them out at events like this.”

Tomorrow’s heroes and superstars of food safety are today’s students, Acuff said. 

Earlier in life, before he even thought about joining the next generation of food safety professionals, Acuff had his own heroes. Having grown up in Texas in the late 1950s and 1960s, most of his heroes had always been cowboys, he said. 

He found Rock Hudson’s character in the film “Giant” particularly worthy of his worship. As a college student he began to have an appreciation of another kind of giant. The kind Isaac Newton had in mind when he said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Then, one night when he was out to dinner with his family, Acuff was reminded that no matter how tall your stack of degrees, research and reputation becomes, the next generation can open your eyes. Which brought Acuff to the story behind the title of his lecture.

While gathered around a table at a PF Chang’s restaurant, one of Acuff’s son in laws — an electrical engineer — asked him “Where do you put your chopsticks?” His daughter’s husband went on to say, “It wouldn’t be very sanitary to put them on the table.”

Acuff had never considered the question. He was stunned at his oversight of such a basic and obvious food safety issue. He was even more stunned when the younger man showed him where to put his chopsticks. The son-in-law took the wrapper off of a new pair and folded it into a chopstick holder that kept the business end of the sticks safely above the tabletop.

“Things happen to remind us we have things we don’t know,” Acuff said after he taught the IAFP crowd how to fold a chopstick holder.

So the thing that Rock Hudson, Joe Walsh and Isaac Newton have in common is the honor of getting a shout out from Professor Gary Acuff while he encouraged heroes, ordinary guys and the next generation of food safety professionals to stand on the shoulders of giants in their pursuit of a safer, better world.

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