Clare Berryhill Defends the Golden State Against Pests and Poisons

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The telephone jangles him awake at 7 a.m. "Clare Berryhill?" asks a woman's voice. "I found a strange looking bee in my swimming pool. What should I do with it?" California's director of food and agriculture rolls his eyes heavenward. Now they're calling him at home. "Bring it on in," he says. "We'll run it through the lab."

Within the next 12 hours, he and the staff at his Sacramento headquarters will log nearly 200 calls from as far away as Norway, all seeking advice on the Golden State's latest scourge: migratory Africanized "killer" bees from South America. Since July 23, when entomologists confirmed that the potentially deadly insects had made California one of their first stops in the U.S., Berryhill has been beating off a swarm of reporters and taxpayers, while trying to contain the threat to his state's $35.7 million honey industry. "But bees are the least of my worries right now," he chuckles. "It's the cheese, watermelons and apple maggots I'm worried about."

Since June the 59-year-old Berryhill has stood like bureaucracy's Horatius-at-the-bridge against a staggering onslaught of environmental calamities. A third-generation California grower, he presides, with bluff humor and a willingness to make the tough decisions, over 2,700 government workers and a budget of $108 million. His deft handling of crises, ranging from an infiltration of Mexican fruit flies to the use of illegal pesticides by table-grape growers, has made him the man of the hour, California's Mr. Trouble. "It's only been two months," he sighs, "but it seems like it's been a year."

The first and worst disaster hit June 13, when Los Angeles health officials told Berryhill they'd traced a sudden rash of deaths to highly toxic bacteria in a soft cheese produced by Jalisco Mexican Products. Within four hours Berryhill ordered the plant shut down, issued a nationwide recall of Jalisco cheeses and flew a team of scientists to the site, where they proceeded to scrutinize the company's pasteurizing equipment. When his investigators were unable to uncover any malfunction, Berryhill told inspectors to audit the company's books. They found evidence that the company had been taking deliveries of more milk than it could safely pasteurize. To date 53 deaths and stillbirths have been linked to the tainted cheese. "We have absolutely gone bats trying to figure this thing out," says Berryhill.

Then on July 3, an Oregon health official phoned to report that three Oregon families had become violently ill after eating California watermelons. Berryhill and his staff scientists guessed a pesticide was at fault, so they went to work testing watermelon rinds. By July 4 reports of sickness had soared to 300; however, 25 staffers working through the night had nailed the culprit: a pesticide used mainly on corn but illegal in melon fields because it is so readily absorbed by the fruit. Berryhill recalled all melons on the shelves, ordered his staffers into the fields to locate the source of the poisoned fruit and declared a statewide embargo on further shipments. That made the melon farmers mad, but Berryhill faced them down at a meeting with 50 growers. "When he walked in," says staffer Jim Wells, "they were ready to tar and feather him. He just laid it on the line. And when they complained, he pounded his fist on the table and laid it on the line some more. In the end they gave him a standing ovation and a silver belt buckle."

Born in Reedley, Calif., Berryhill had seen his father and grandfather lose their land in the Depression. Today he owns 310 acres of walnuts, wine grapes, almonds and apples in Ceres, plus a three-bedroom vacation home in Mexico and a cabin in the Sierras, which he shares with wife Mary Ellen, their three daughters and two sons, ages 27 to 33. In 1969 he was elected assemblyman, then state senator in 1972 before retiring from politics four years later. In 1983 newly elected Gov. George Deukmejian offered him the $83,000-a-year food and agriculture post. "I love a challenge," says Berryhill, "and frankly, I was getting a little bit bored with my life."

Lunching in a restaurant popular with state assembly pols, Berryhill fields jibes amiably. "Hey, Clare," calls a senior senator, "how's the watermelon today?" "Try the cheese," returns Berryhill with black humor. "I'll buy." The arrival of Africanized bees, however, is no joke. The invaders carry mites deadly to domestic bee strains and can take over their hives through crossbreeding, threatening California's commercial bee industry—the nation's largest—with ruin. For the moment, the advance of the aggressive killer bees has been halted. "They're under control," says Berryhill. But the search continues, and if more of the marauders are detected, Californians can count on Mr. Trouble to put up a honey of a fight.

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