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Talk to James Serafino for a while and you are liable to end up knowing a little bit more about your food than you wanted to. Serafino, who began his career in a white lab coat as a food chemist at General Foods, can tell you, for instance, that titanium dioxide, the additive that was used to provide the cloudy appearance in drinks like Tang and Country Time lemonade, is also the pigment used to color white paint. And he can tell you that methylene chloride, the chemical better known as paint stripper, was once used to decaffeinate coffee. But Serafino is also extremely well-versed in the legal side of the food business, having spent 21 years as an in-house counsel at General Foods, Nestle and Colgate-Palmolive after attending law school at night. Most recently, he has taken his inside-out knowledge of the food industry into private practice for the first time, as counsel in the New York office of Chicago’s Sidley & Austin. Marty Gorman, Kraft Foods director of legal services and a former colleague of Serafino, said, “Jim has this ability to take a complex issue and simplify it. His knowledge is so extensive that he is able to find solutions that I think most lawyers are not able to find.” The son of immigrants from Italy, Serafino, 48, grew up in Stamford, Conn., and spent summers working alongside his father at an Arnold Bread factory. After graduating with a chemistry degree from nearby Fairfield University in 1974, he joined General Foods as a food chemist in the Breakfast and Beverage unit. His first challenge there was to find fruit pieces for Raisin Bran cereal that would not shed their moisture in the box and ruin the flakes. Later, he was charged with finding an opacity agent that would impart a realistic cloudiness and “mouth feel” to imitation fruit juices like Tang and Country Time. He still holds the patent (assigned to General Foods) for the eventual solution: using minor amounts of titanium dioxide as an ingredient in the dry drink mixes. At the same time, Serafino was working closely with lawyers in the development and patent process. And though he had always considered himself a more likely candidate for a master’s degree in organic chemistry, he began to think about going to law school instead. Serafino started at St. John’s University School of Law in 1975, attending classes at night after his lab work under a General Foods program that paid the tuition. At first he was apprehensive, particularly when the dean of the law school told the first-year class that they would be taught to think like lawyers. But he was relieved to learn that thinking like a lawyer was nothing more than another application of the scientific method. “When you write briefs in law school it’s very similar to writing a lab report,” Serafino recalled. “When I realized that this method of thinking like a lawyer was akin to thinking like a scientist, law school got a lot easier.” Switched to General Foods’ regulatory affairs department as his law studies continued, Serafino worked on food additive petitions such as the process for decaffeination of coffee. His schedule kept him busy working and going to class from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. for four years. “I look back now and I say those were the best days of my life,” he said. “I was working at something I loved working at and learning something I loved learning about. It was a good picture for me.” When Serafino graduated in 1979, the General Foods legal department wanted him. Peter DeLuca, then the general counsel at General Foods and now special counsel at Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, said he was attracted to Serafino’s native pragmatism and hands-on food industry experience. “Jim is an aggressive learner. He just loves what he’s doing,” DeLuca said. “More importantly, I think he brought the practical business aspect to it more than most lawyers do.” Serafino stayed at General Foods and its successor company, Kraft General Foods, until 1992, except for a three-year hiatus when he was associate general counsel and director of regulatory affairs at Nestle. In both places, he had a regulatory focus, negotiating with the Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Agriculture over issues of manufacturing, labeling and advertising standards. He was also involved in developing industry-wide, voluntary best-practices standards, a critical task in which he ensured that the companies maintained their ethical responsibilities to consumers. Said Michael A. Brizel, a General Foods colleague who is now the general counsel at Reader’s Digest, of Serafino, “He’s got tremendous leadership skills, not just leading lawyers but leading business people, getting them focused on specific issues and making sure the company did the right thing, not just the legally required thing.” HELICOPTER CRASH Serafino joined Colgate-Palmolive in 1992 as vice president and associate general counsel, with responsibility over the regulatory, patent and trademark departments. But in April 1997, tragedy struck when he was a passenger in a helicopter that crashed into the East River after taking off from Manhattan’s 60th Street Heliport. Serafino was pulled unconscious from the river and spent two months in the hospital. Another Colgate executive was killed in the crash. Serafino preferred not to discuss the accident, which is the subject of pending litigation, saying that “it’s just another thing that happened.” After nine years at Colgate, with its stable of cosmetic and drug products, Serafino began looking to return to food last year. And when he mentioned his intentions to Scott Bass, a longtime friend who represents Colgate as a partner at Sidley & Austin, Bass said, “Why don’t we do it together?” Three weeks later, Serafino agreed to join the firm as counsel in New York. Sidley’s food and drug practice is busy these days, particularly with the regulatory issues arising from the proliferation of food products that claim to deliver health benefits. Said Bass, who heads the practice, “There are so many front-burner issues in FDA law right now, involving good manufacturing practices, dietary supplements and food additives, organic foods and functional foods. “Jim has front-line experience in all of these areas, as well as in key patent, trademark and regulatory matters for some of the best-known food and pharmaceutical brands on the planet.” Serafino, who continues to live in his home town of Stamford with his wife and two sons, seems genuinely excited to have returned to a focus on food. “He has a tremendous passion and enthusiasm for the area he practices in. He really loves it,” said Brizel. “You don’t find a lot of lawyers like that.”

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