Sitting Down With a Chromatography Icon: W. George Fong

By Jack Cochran, August 2011
M. George Fong

Earlier this year, while we were putting the finishing touches on our presentations and plans for the 48th annual Florida Pesticide Residue Workshop (FPRW), my Restek colleagues and I received some sad news: George and Wilma Fong were retiring after almost 50 years at the helm of FPRW and its sponsor, FLAG Works, Inc.

The story of FPRW is a fascinating one. It started life as a small, unnamed gathering of intra-lab personnel established by George Fong back in the 1960s. Only a dozen people attended the first meeting; they didn’t even keep records of the proceedings. But by the time I made my first appearance in 2000, FPRW had turned into an international event attracting the industry’s best from the government and private labs alike. The field of pesticide detection and analysis would not be what it is today without FPRW and, therefore, without George and Wilma Fong.

FPRW

After cheering the Fongs when they accepted the inaugural FPRW service award—which has been named in their honor—I was fortunate enough to catch up with George to learn more about the workshop’s history and impact on the industry.

Tell us about yourself and your background in pesticide analysis:

Jack: What did you do before you started the Florida Pesticide Residue Workshop (FPRW)?

George: When I reported to work at Chemical Residue Laboratory (then Pesticide Residue Laboratory) in February 1964, there were four laboratories: the headquarters in Tallahassee, a field laboratory in Sanford, a mobile laboratory located alternately in Belle Glade and Miami, and a second mobile laboratory located alternately in Central and West Florida. CRL (Chemical Residue Laboratory) also supported the citrus laboratory in Winter Haven, FL, with materials and methods. CRL was an enforcement agency of state regulations and federal regulations adopted by Florida.

At the time, the most common pesticide residue analytical methods were colorimetric procedures for DDT, parathion, and toxaphene. Paper and thin layer chromatography were also used for multiresidue analysis of chlorinated pesticides.

After 6 weeks of training, I was assigned to the second mobile laboratory and was stationed in East Palatka, FL. It was a great experience for me working with a laboratory technician and an inspector out in the field. I learned a lot about Florida agriculture. I also began to grasp the importance of accuracy and timeliness of analytical results. After the growing season, I returned to the Tallahassee laboratory.

Jack: What have you been doing since?

George: In Tallahassee, I was assigned to work on a Dohrmann gas chromatograph with coulometric detector. The coulometric detector was used specifically for halogenated pesticides, but the instrument was very problematic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had a training laboratory in Perrine, Florida, with a training course on operating and maintaining the Dohrmann gas chromatograph. I joined FDA chemists in this training and was very happy to interact with other analytical chemists.

Gas chromatographs were introduced at the 1950 Pittsburgh Conference; however, the instruments were not sensitive enough for pesticide residue analysis in the ppb range. The Pestilyzer, a gas chromatograph with electron capture detector, came to market in 1966 and was an ideal instrument for pesticide residue analysis. It was sensitive and easy to use. The Pestilyzer became the major workhorse of many pesticide residue laboratories. One was purchased for the Tallahassee laboratory. We used the instrument for analyzing residues of existing and emerging pesticides in produce and other food sample matrices.

We’d love to know more about the history of FPRW:

Jack: What made you decide to start FPRW?

George: I felt very isolated from technical information. I suggested to my immediate supervisor, the late Miss Bertha Munks, and the laboratory chief, the late Mr. Doyle Golden, that a periodical meeting for all CRL chemists and inspectors to discuss analytical technology and regulatory matters was necessary.

The first intra-lab CRL meeting was held in Tallahassee during the holidays of 1964. The following meeting in 1965 was held at the Sanford field laboratory. The late Dr. Charles H. Van Middelem was invited to speak. At the time, Dr. Van Middelem was the director of the Inter-Regional-4 (IR-4) Laboratory, Institute of Food and Agriculture Science (IFAS), University of Florida. IR-4 was one of four laboratories in the U.S. working on field studies of pesticide application and petitioning approval of pesticides residue tolerances. Dr. Van Middelem presented to us the technical requirements of pesticide residue analysis. He suggested that CRL and IR-4 could work closely and encouraged such meetings.

Later meetings were held in different parts of Florida to attract local attendees.

Jack: Has the meeting always been called the Florida Pesticide Residue Workshop?

George: There were no names for the first few meetings; they were like discussion gatherings. The 1966 workshop was held in Winter Haven, Florida. We had speakers from the FDA in addition to CRL chemists. Several chemists from Alabama and Georgia also attended this meeting.

I was put in charge of establishing the meeting program, recruiting speakers, and arranging the site. Since it was a relatively small meeting, we asked each attendee to speak or just to give a short talk about their laboratory work. We particularly encouraged attendees from government agencies to describe their programs. I believe the name of Florida Pesticide Residue Workshop (FPRW) was introduced a few years later.

Soon after, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) became an issue. CRL was one of the first laboratories to analyze residues of PCBs and PCB congeners using the Pestilyzer. We shared our knowledge with other state laboratories. At FPRW meetings, the analytical methodology of PCBs was discussed extensively. Later, there were many other pesticide and chemical crises and issues such as PBBs (polybrominated biphenyls), Temik (aldicarb), EDB (ethylene dibromide), methylmercury, etc. These issues and methods were in the programs of FPRW meetings.

Jack: What made you expand these smaller meetings outside of CRL employees?

George: When my supervisors visited other states, they sent out invitations. We also invited visitors from other labs. I had a few contacts with the FDA from my Dohrmann GC training. I suggested to my supervisor that we invite FDA chemists. I believed after the PCB issue emerged that many would want to join us. At the time, it was the only such meeting for state chemists.

Jack: What were some of the challenges of expanding the meeting outside of CRL?

George: Actually, it was very exciting to have visitors join us. It was manageable when the number of attendees was around 50. (CRL inspectors and technicians did not attend all meetings.) We did not charge a registration fee and had no budget. The meetings were held at state of Florida buildings and used state projection equipment. Programs were printed at state in-house print shops. It was a challenge when the meeting had grown to around 100. I had to learn how to negotiate with hotels. I took some meeting planning short courses and joined Society of Government Meeting Professionals.

We had enough room occupancy, and never paid for meeting rooms. The first registration fee was $25 to cover refreshments and buy some meeting materials. At early meetings, we had no problem recruiting speakers. The meetings were very informal, and most speakers were bench chemists. Besides, everyone loves coming to Florida.

Jack: Did anyone speak in the first few years with whom we might still be familiar today?

George: Unfortunately many of the speakers have now passed away. Many people in the pesticide residue field may recognize one invited speaker from our second meeting: the late Dr. Van Middelem. Dr. Van Middelem was the past Chair of American Chemical Society Pesticide/Agro Division (1974) and Fellow (1975).

Jack: How has FPRW changed over time?

George: Now, FPRW is attended by scientists from federal, state, and local governments; from the academic and private sectors. Representatives from following countries have attended FPRW: Canada, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, and Egypt. Over the years, FPRW meetings have included presentations on instrumentation, methodologies, quality assurance, regulation, and analytical services as well as exhibitions of the latest instrumentation, chromatography, and laboratory supplies. Most importantly, it has provided the opportunity of networking with colleagues. FPRW is the only such meeting in the U.S.

Jack: When did Wilma first get involved with the meeting, and how important has she been to its success over the years?

George: Wilma was involved at the very beginning supporting me and FPRW. She greeted attendees, worked at the registration desk, and for several years, she was the cashier. Every meeting requires lots of preparation months ahead of the meeting. She helped me organize the meetings at home.

FPRW is a unique event in many ways:

Jack: What sets FPRW apart from other conferences?

George: FPRW is a small and focused meeting. Most of all, it is a friendly forum. Attendees have the opportunity to meet each other and form a network of knowledge and friendship.

Jack: What are your best memories from FPRW?

George: Every FPRW meeting is a memorable event. To me, the most exciting point was the forming of the Florida Pesticide Residue Workshop in late 1960s. At the time, many chemical residue issues, such as PCBs, carbamates, PBBs, EDB, etc., were emerging. At FPRW meetings, we were able to share knowledge and help each other.

Jack: What is the history of using dinner chimes to let people know that the talks are starting?

George: It was the first year we had our meeting at TradeWinds (1989). The catering office had a chime that we used. Later, we bought one. It is a pleasant way to ask the attendees to get into the meeting.

Jack: Your speaker and volunteer gifts (photographs you’ve taken) are highly desirable prizes for presenting/helping at FPRW. How long have you been giving those away, and how did you come up with the idea?

George: We wanted to show our appreciation to the speakers and volunteers. I love to take photographs of nature, and Florida is a paradise for my hobby. Someone suggested giving my nature photographs to speakers and volunteers. They are unique gifts and also a great way to show off the beautiful nature of Florida.

Under your guidance, FPRW has been incredibly influential in the industry and beyond:

Jack: What was the biggest crisis that FPRW faced and how did you handle it?

George: Florida is an agricultural state that supplies fresh fruits and vegetables both nationally and internationally. The Commissioner of Agriculture and his administration believe in proactive measures: strong analytical capability and enforcement of regulation. CRL is a unique bureau that encompasses laboratory and inspection. If there is a pesticide residue issue, inspectors in the bureau can take regulatory action based on laboratory analytical results immediately. Thus, contaminated products are prevented from reaching consumers. The program is the same under Jo Marie’s watch.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Jo Marie Cook is the current Chief, Bureau of Chemical Residue Laboratories, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.]

I had to testify in court many times on behalf of government regulatory agencies (Florida and EPA). There was a very interesting incident during a pesticide misuse case. After I testified about our laboratory’s results, the defense attorney asked me if our laboratory can make a mistake. The government attorney objected; however, the judge said he would like to hear my answer. My answer was that we are human and are not infallible. However, with the strict QA/QC protocol installed in the laboratory that all analysts must follow, the mistakes are minimized. The judge said that was a smart answer.

Jack: What was the outcome of the case? That was a great answer you gave the judge, by the way!

George: I was testifying on behalf of a grant of pesticide misuse that we had with EPA. We won the case, but I did not follow up with the penalty.

Jack: How have food safety issues changed since FPRW began?

George: We now have more efficient methods offering faster analysis time, more accuracy, and greater assurance—many of which were unveiled at FPRW meetings—that enable analysts to tackle pesticide residue/food safety problems.

Jack: How has FPRW impacted pesticide residue analysis over the years?

George: Its biggest impact has been in providing a way for us to share knowledge and network with colleagues.

At first, it benefited the state and local laboratory chemists. A network of knowledge exchange was available. When a pesticide residue crisis arose, the agencies were no longer alone. They could find advice and assistance.

Federal agencies such as the FDA, USDA, and EPA have larger budgets and resources. State and local agencies are now able to tap some of it. I know Florida has benefited from grants from the FDA, USDA, and EPA on pesticide use/misuse and pesticide residue work.

There was a huge issue with Temik residues in watermelon during the 1980s in California. We worked very closely with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Later, CDFA started the California Pesticide Residue Workshop (CPRW), and we provided assistance.

Consumers were very concerned about food safety and pesticide residue contamination. The media blowup affected the Florida watermelon market. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) launched a watermelon-monitoring program. A large number of samples from various growers were tested. Samples were taken according to FDACS sampling protocol. No aldicarb or aldicarb metabolite residues were found in any of the samples. In addition, growers could join a certified program for testing of Temik.

The workshop has definitely provided advance in residue analysis. As a result of our analytical data, the public can be assured that our food supply and also our drinking water are safe.

Jack: What do you see in FPRW’s future?

George: The future is already here. Under the capable leadership of the organizing and program committee chairs and energetic committee members, each FPRW offers more comprehensive coverage in chemical residue analytical methods. The North American Chemical Residue Workshop (NACRW) is the sign of the future.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: To emphasize its increased reach and to coincide with its 50th anniversary, the Florida Pesticide Residue Workshop (FPRW) will be renamed the North American Chemical Residue Workshop (NACRW) after FPRW 2012.]

Early FPRW meetings were attended only by CRL personnel and a few chemists from the Florida Department of Agriculture. George is on the bottom right.
The Pestilyzer was vital to George early in his career because it had the sensitivity necessary to do chlorinated pesticide residue work when most systems did not.
FRPW steadily expanded to include attendees from other organizations, states, and countries. In this group shot from the 1980s, you can find Dr. C. H. Van Middelem, one of FPRW’s first speakers, in the back row, ninth from the right. Gail Parker and Pat Beckett, FDACS employees and later FPRW organizers, are in the second row, sixth and seventh from the right.
George and Wilma Fong holding their retirement gift from Restek—pictures I took while on safari. We can’t thank them enough for their friendship and incredible contributions to field of pesticide analysis.
Coconut rum, spiced rum, cranberry juice, blue Curaçao, pineapple juice... It’s not every day you get a cocktail named after you, let alone one this tasty!
George is not just famous for his contributions to pesticide analysis. He’s also famous for his photography! He has given photos like these as speaker and volunteer gifts for years.