Dole Food chairman and owner David Murdock wants to take his vision of a plant-based, healthy diet from Kannapolis to the world. On Tuesday, he said he is starting an endowment that will donate $15 million a year to the North Carolina Research Campus he founded.
The gift will continue annually “in perpetuity,” said Murdock, who, at a spry 91, said he intends to make his institute the premier research center on nutrition in the U.S.
“I want this to be the greatest scientific center in America. And I have the financial wherewithal myself to see that happens,” said Murdock. He opened the center in 2008, on the site of a former Pillowtex mill complex he bought.
Since then, Murdock has poured more than $800 million of his own money into building and operating the research center. According to Forbes, he is the 190th-richest American, with a net worth of about $3 billion. Murdock took Dole, the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, private last year.
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Murdock wasn’t shy Tuesday about his passion to change the American diet.
“I eat only fruits and vegetables, nuts. ... I’m 91 years old, and I’m as healthy as any one of you here. That should be a good example of ... proper eating: fruits and vegetables,” Murdock said. “Not hamburgers. Not cheese. Not hot dogs. Those are all the things that are very injurious to your body and injurious to your brain.”
Except for being a bit hard of hearing, Murdock appears to be in good health. He walks without a cane, stands straight in his double-breasted suit and speaks loudly enough to make his deep voice echo down the hallway.
Researchers from Duke and multiple schools in the University of North Carolina system, as well as food companies such as Monsanto and General Mills, use the campus to study topics from diabetes to the health benefits of antioxidants in banana peels.
“It’s an important part of what we do,” said Chris Brown, vice president for research and graduate education at the UNC system. Seven schools, including UNC Charlotte, use the N.C. Research Campus, he said. “There’s nothing else like this in our system.”
Murdock said the new annual commitment will solidify the future operations of the David H. Murdock Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that serves as the core laboratory facility at the campus. Murdock also said he plans to recruit a world-class scientist to head the institute.
“I want to get a super heavyweight scientist to come in here and take over and run it,” said Murdock, who is also chairman of the research institute that bears his name. “I know what we need to do, I just need to find someone great enough to see that everybody else knows that. ... I’m looking for one who’s super well-known.”
The core laboratory at the campus has been operating at a deficit, tax records show. In 2012, the most recent year available, the nonprofit laboratory reported $11.4 million in revenue and almost $16 million worth of expenses, for a $4.6 million deficit. The center’s current budget is $10.8 million, meaning Murdock’s gift will more than double it.
Murdock said the recession slowed the center’s ability to expand. “We went through a depression, and it hit me along with everyone,” Murdock said. “I lost a couple of billion dollars, so, yes, it did change things. That’s all over now.”
Plant-based diets studied
The research at the campus reflects Murdock’s firm belief in the benefits of a plant-based diet.
“I believe that proper eating will help all sorts of diseases. I can’t say it will cure but I can say it will materially help,” Murdock said. “Unless you’re too far gone. Once you’ve almost killed yourself with improper eating, you can’t just correct that.”
Projects at the center include studying the health benefits of blueberries, producing fruits and vegetables with higher levels of disease-preventing compounds and examining the effects of different nutrients in preventing and treating cancer.
He said he hopes the center – and its impact on people’s diets – will be his legacy.
“There’s all kind of things going on in the world that I don’t like but I can’t change. But at least I can say change the way you eat!” said Murdock. “And I intend that it’s going to pour out of here, information on how to live and be healthy in perpetuity.”
Despite his decades-long devotion to his diet, Murdock isn’t above a little indulgence. But he doesn’t feel good about it.
“I once in a while cheat and have a little ice cream, and then I kind of blame myself. So I give myself hell, you know,” he said. “But I don’t do that very often.” Observer staff writer Rick Rothacker contributed.