For celebrated food scientist and past IFT president Al Clausi, the word that comes to mind when he’s asked to reflect on his 40-year career at General Foods is “joyful.”
“I can honestly say that I enjoyed every day of it,” says the former R&D executive, who observes his 100th birthday on June 3.
Although he retired in 1987, Clausi remains a passionate advocate of food innovation. “You have to keep looking to see what can be done differently, what can be done better,” he emphasizes. Clausi’s roster of personal product development achievements includes the invention of Jell-O Instant Pudding, chiffon pie fillings, and other prepackaged dessert items.
A U.S. Navy World War II veteran, Clausi was an “accidental food scientist.” He completed dual pre-med and chemistry majors in college and was awaiting medical school admission when he was hired as a junior chemist at General Foods. By the time a spot in medical school opened up a year later, he was already hooked on CPG product development.
Over the course of the next four decades, Clausi moved into senior managerial positions at General Foods, culminating in the role of senior vice president and chief R&D officer worldwide. His research team’s initiatives include the development of products that soon became household staples.
Q: You have a long list of product development success stories. What is your favorite?
Clausi: I think instant pudding because that was the first one. It made me realize that I could make a big difference.
Q: As a product developer and later an R&D leader, were there any important lessons that you learned and later passed on to others?
Clausi: I learned something that I used in my own career when I was leading people. And it’s a very simple thing: If you want me to do something different, then don’t tell me how to do it.
That was my management philosophy. And I think that’s why we had such a magnificent outpouring of food products like Cool Whip, Shake ‘n Bake, Tang, Stove Top Stuffing mix, Honey-Comb cereal, and Alpha-Bits cereal. General Foods was really pouring them out in my day.
Q: Would you say that was a guiding principle of your career?
Clausi: Absolutely. No doubt about it.
Q: What stands out to you about your role as president of IFT?
Clausi: It was more of an old boys club when I started. In fact, when I was president, one of the first things that I did was have an institute-wide vote on whether the vote should be all members. Because the only members who could vote were professionals with five to 10 years of experience. That’s what made it very much an old boys club. So when I was president, the vote went to everybody.
Q: Would you do it all over again—a career in food science?
Clausi: Absolutely. My only regret when I was in the industry was that I felt that most young people didn’t know about the profession. Food science at least in my day was something that you discovered after you got to college. And I always thought that it would be great if we could get the message out to high school graduates who were thinking about what to focus on. I hope that today it’s more known than it was in my day.
Q: You played a major role in establishing the World Food Prize after the chairman of General Foods was approached about creating a major award in recognition of achievement in food. How did that come about?
Clausi: I told the chairman, “I think it’s a great idea. We should support it.” He agreed with me and gave me the job—developer of a prize for food. And that’s what we did, working with [Norman] Borlaug and others. … It was called the General Foods World Food Prize. That was its original title.
I was at retirement age in the middle 1980s, so I was retained to continue running the prize. So I organized the council to manage it … and went to Nobel to get some ideas from them about how the heck do you run a prize. So we were off and running, and the first prize was given in 1987, and that was the beginning of the World Food Prize.
Q: How will you celebrate your 100th birthday?
Clausi: I told my family I’m happy to celebrate it with members of the family. They’re going to have a party. I have family members coming from as far away as Australia.
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