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Benjamin Reed Zaricor: 1947–2022

Herb industry pioneer Ben Zaricor died at his home in Soquel, California, surrounded by his family on June 8, 2022, at age 74. He was born on November 10, 1947, in Shelby County, Tennessee, to Carl E. Zaricor and Patricia C. Zaricor (née Malone). Ben was raised in Tennessee and attended schools locally. In 1965, he graduated 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, Missouri.

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 Ben’s life and sparked his passion for flags, the power of symbols, and the injustices inherent in power. It was also during his time 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® (Haw Par Corporation, Singapore), which contains plant-derived ingredients such as menthol (from Mentha spp., Lamiaceae) and capsicum (from Capsicum spp., Solanaceae). This blossomed into connections in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which led to their successful trade in Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng, Araliaceae) root.

Ben and Louise envisioned 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 for 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 for 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.

Caroline MacDougall, founder and CEO of Teeccino and former herb buyer for Celestial Seasonings, recalled Ben’s gift for strategy and principled stances. “When I think of Ben, what stands out is his mental prowess, which was always many steps ahead of everyone else, and his fearlessness to stand by his ideals and principles,” she wrote (email, July 18, 2022). “When he thought something was wrong and should be righted, he was committed to going after it, even if it involved personally financing lawyers’ fees to fight legal cases. I actually think he may have missed the boat in not becoming a lawyer and subsequently a judge, because he was so committed to justice.” Ben was a founder of the Herb Trade Association (HTA, 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.

“Why did we have to have three co-presidents? Well, it was a wild time in those early herbal days,” MacDougall, who was also one of HTA’s tri-presidents, added. “We were learning to work together, and the miracle was that we attempted it at all. Now, almost 50 years later, I’m grateful that Ben led the way for the herbal industry to emerge as the powerhouse for wellness that it is today.”

In the early 1980s, Ben and Louise, via Fmali, took legal action against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its interpretation of the “common use in food” provision that dealt with “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) foods. The 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 In the NutraIngredients-USA article, American Botanical Council (ABC) Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, who did business with Zaricor in the 1970s, stated the Fmali decision was one of the most important legal developments in the US herb industry until the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) 11 years later.2

Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, traditional Chinese medicine expert and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care, wrote (email, July 24, 2022): “For me, Ben Zaricor was always part of the team of Ben and Louise. I worked more closely and routinely with Ben, especially during the period 1976-1985, the first part working at Fmali. and later doing occasional consulting on projects. Though sometimes people who knew Ben might butt heads with him over certain matters, as I did, there was one overriding experience of him: Ben is a good man.

“Ben and Louise had arranged to attend a convention in China, and after the first year, Ben had a conflicting requirement, and he chose for me to go with Louise to China,” Dharmananda continued. “I always appreciated his trust in me to take on ever-larger projects, having initially requested that I design and oversee construction and operation of the botanical research laboratory at Fmali…. He never failed to provide opportunities for numerous people he knew.”

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 because of his involvement in an anti-war protest at Washington University shortly after the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio 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 Bill Clinton’s presidency in 2001.

Mechanic, under the alias Gary Tredway and doing business as Pure Planet Products, collaborated with Zaricor to import Chinese botanicals. “Ben was a college friend, and we worked together for decades,” Mechanic wrote (email, July 18, 2022). “He was a leader in everything he set out to do. He took many personal risks to protect me and set aside many of his business tasks to step up as the point person in getting me a presidential pardon. His principles came first.”

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 known 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) and co-author Whitney Smith (also a vexillologist) called the collection “one of the best, if not the best, American flag collections in the country” in their 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

At the Presidio of San Francisco, Ben also co-founded the landmark 2003 exhibition on the history of the American flag. The San Francisco Chronicle described the exhibition 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, “The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict,” based on Madaus and Smith’s book.

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 wife, Louise; his three children, Tanya Marie Veninga-Zaricor, Carl Frederick Veninga-Zaricor, and Karen Lesley Veninga-Zaricor; his older brother, David Zaricor; and his first cousin, Larry Raspberry. Services were held on Flag Day (June 14, 2022) at the Santa Cruz Memorial Oakwood Chapel.

References

  1. Appeals court overrules FDA on food safety. Herbalgram. 1983-1984;2:1. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/media/11957/issue2.pdf. Accessed June 16, 2022.
  2. 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.
  3. Madaus HM, Smith W. The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord & Conflict. VZ Publications: 2006.
  4. The People Behind ZFC. Zaricor Flag Collection website. Available at: www.flagcollection.com/resourcesstaticcontent.php?CollectionHTMLZone_Code=resources_thepeoplebehindZFC. Accessed June 16, 2022.