Herb Industry Pioneer Ben Zaricor Dies at 74
By the Zaricor-Veninga Family and ABC Staff
Ben R. Zaricor, age 74, passed away at his home in Soquel, California, surrounded by his family on June 8, 2022. He was born on November 10, 1947, in Shelby, Tennessee, to Carl E. Zaricor and Patricia C. (nee Malone) Zaricor. Ben was raised in Tennessee, attending schools locally. He graduated in 1965 from Overton High School in Memphis, where he exhibited a fondness for economics before enrolling as a sociology major at Washington University in St. Louis.
While in Missouri from 1966 to 1970, Ben worked in the library at Washington University and became interested in progressive movements and the anti-war cause. He also was active in university politics and eventually became president of the WashU Student Union. In 1969, he witnessed a young man being beaten by plainclothes police officers for wearing an American flag vest. This moment changed his life and sparked his passion for flags, the power of symbols, and the injustices inherent in power. It was also during his tenure in St. Louis that he met and courted Louise Veninga, his future wife.
Shortly before their 1971 marriage, Ben and Louise began a company, Fmali Inc., with an idea to import bicycles from Asia. They pursued this plan for nearly a year and aimed to import container loads of bikes from China. Unfortunately, their supplier did not come through, so the Zaricors decided to import natural products instead. Their first success was with the analgesic ointment Tiger Balm®. This blossomed into connections in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which led to their successful trading in Asian ginseng root (Panax ginseng, Araliaceae).
Ben and Louise then began planning to go directly to China, envisioning a promising future as the Chinese economy began to open up. For the next three decades, Ben and his wife were involved in the importation, processing, and distribution of teas, herbs, and spices to food and beverage companies all over the world.
The Zaricors moved to Santa Cruz, California, in 1972. In 1976, they received approval from the Chinese government to export containers of herbs and botanicals to the United States — the first such approval granted since 1949 — and became a primary source of botanicals and spices for the then-developing US herbal market. Over the next decade, they became a leading supplier to Celestial Seasonings, Thomas J. Lipton, and many other tea, herb, and spice companies. Ben then founded the Good Earth Tea Company. He continued as the CEO of this expanding and successful national brand until the company was sold in 2005.
Ben was a founder of the Herb Trade Association (the forerunner of the American Herbal Products Association) and served as one of its “tri-presidents” from 1976 to 1977. He also was one of the founders of Botanicals International, a major botanical import and distribution company based in California.
In the early 1980s, Ben and Louise, via Fmali, took legal action against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its restrictive interpretation of federal regulations concerning the “common use in food” provision that dealt with “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) foods. FDA had detained a shipment of a ginseng, royal jelly, and schisandra (Schisandra chinensis, Schisandraceae) product from China, and claimed that common use in food referred only to use in the United States. In the now-classic Fmali Herb, Inc. v. Heckler case, a US Circuit Court ruled in favor of Fmali, thereby allowing herb industry members to import herbs not previously sold in the United States for use in teas and other natural products, so long as they had a documented history of safe use, regardless of the geographical area(s) of such use.1,2
The Fmali case was the top story in the then-new newsletter “Herbalgram” (issue 2, 1983)1 and was the subject of an article published on NutraIngredients-USA.com in March 2022.2 ABC’s Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, who in the 1970s had done business with Zaricor, stated in the NutraIngredients-USA article that the Fmali decision was one of the most important legal developments in the herb industry until the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) 11 years later.2
Ben never lost sight of his progressive ideals, and in 2000, against formidable odds, he led a grassroots effort to obtain a presidential pardon for a friend from their anti-war days in St. Louis. The friend, Howard Mechanic, had been wrongly convicted of violating the 1968 federal anti-riot act during an anti-war protest after the Kent State shootings in May 1970. Although the pardon campaign was a complicated, emotionally charged, and daunting process, the almost yearlong project was ultimately successful and resulted in a full pardon for Howard on the last day of the Bill Clinton presidency.
Ben and Louise gradually amassed an enormous collection of more than 3,700 flags and flag-related items. Now known as the Zaricor Flag Collection (ZFC), it is the largest private flag collection in the United States. Howard Michael Madaus, a collector, vexillologist (one who studies flags), and the first Chief Curator of the ZFC, called the collection “one of the best, if not the best, American flag collections in the country” in his 2006 book The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord & Conflict (VZ Publications).3 Anne Crump of American Spirit magazine once described Ben as “the owner of a collection of American flags that makes vexillologists’ hearts flutter.”4
Ben also co-founded the landmark 2003 exhibition at the Presidio of San Francisco on the history of the American flag, which was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “one of the top 10 pop culture events of the year.”4 The ZFC, however, is not just about US flags; it is also a home to flags from different time periods from all over the world. Ben and Louise also produced a PBS documentary based on Madaus’ book titled “The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict.”
The Zaricors raised three children and built a home in Soquel, California. Ben liked good books, old movies, short cigars, and eclectic gatherings of friends and family. He is survived by his three children, Tanya Marie Veninga-Zaricor, Carl Frederick Veninga-Zaricor, and Karen Lesley Veninga-Zaricor; his older brother, David Zaricor; his first cousin, Larry Raspberry; and his wife, Louise. Services were held on Flag Day (June 14, 2022) at the Santa Cruz Memorial Oakwood Chapel.
- Appeals court overrules FDA on food safety. HerbalGram. 1983-1984;2:1. Available at: www.herbalgram.org/media/11957/issue2.pdf. Accessed June 16, 2022.
- Daniells S. Fmali v Heckler: The landmark herb case that changed the industry. March 2, 2022. NutraIngredients-USA website. Available at: www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Article/2022/03/02/Fmali-v-Heckler-The-landmark-herb-case-that-changed-the-industry. Accessed June 16, 2022.
- Madaus HM. The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord & Conflict. Santa Cruz, CA: Veninga-Zaricor Publications; 2006.
- The People Behind ZFC. Zaricor Flag Collection website. Available at: www.flagcollection.com/resourcesstaticcontent.php?CollectionHTMLZone_Code=resources_thepeoplebehindZFC. Accessed June 16, 2022.