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The Second Coming of Esther Peterson?

LAS VEGAS — A panel composed of retailers and an NGA executive was lamenting interference from the federal government at this morning's general session of the National Grocers Association's annual convention here.

Given the newly-declared "war on obesity" being waged by General Michelle Obama, the panelists feared more proposals might be forthcoming to legislate how the industry operates .

What they seemed to be saying, individually and as a group, was, "Leave us alone, please, and we'll surely do the right thing for our customers." Joe Sheridan, executive vice president of Wakefern, said it in so many words — if his company and others were alllowed, on their own, to communicate information to customers about the connection between health and better eating, "we can get a positive reputation and they will come back to us.”

And it may be as simple as that, though panelists also said if they all do the same thing, it might attract the attention of government regulators — and if each company does its own different and unique thing, it might attract the attention of government regulators as well.

It's a good thing the industry wants to police itself — on healthy eating and most other matters. But it needs a leader — a second coming of Esther Peterson, the onetime Johnson Administration consumer affairs overseer who left government to work for Giant Foods, Landover, Md., and helped her company — and by example, the entire industry — cope with consumerism and other demands of the 1970's.

With a respected industry spokesperson, perhaps the government would believe the industry's motivations are genuine. But it's unlikely there's another Esther Peterson out there — someone who could leave government and win the trust of the industry, or at least one company, who could help lead the way for the entire industry.