WASHINGTON -- Esther Peterson, a pioneering force in American consumerism who jump-started the food-retailing industry's consumer affairs efforts, died here last week following a stroke at the age of 91.
Industry executives last week recalled how Peterson -- who played key roles at the highest levels of the U.S. government and the food industry -- enabled an initially skeptical supermarket business to address the criticisms of consumer advocates and eventually embrace some of the biggest demands of shoppers.
Peterson, whose early career included teaching and union organizing, served Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton and brought a special focus on consumer and women's issues. She also led the consumer efforts of Giant Food, Landover, Md., for part of the 1970s in a position that paved the way for other supermarket companies to tackle thorny consumer issues. Her work spurred the enactment of product expiration dates, unit pricing, nutritional labeling and numerous other initiatives.
Timothy M. Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, said one of Peterson's most important contributions occurred in the FMI's early days in the late 1970s. "She was the first person to help bridge the gap between our industry and consumer advocates back in the 1970s," he said.
Robert Aders, the FMI's founding president and CEO, who served for 17 years, said, "Esther's contribution to the supermarket industry was as profound as anyone's I've known in the last 40 years of the business. She also had a profound effect on other industries."
The FMI honored Peterson in 1977 with its Industry Statesmanship Award. It further paid tribute by instituting the Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 1987. The annual award has already been given to 10 persons, including academics, government officials, retailers, editors and others. This year's recipient was Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross. The award recognizes an individual for "outstanding contributions in helping grocery retailers serve their customers."
Dole, who had a close relationship with Peterson, said last week, "Esther Peterson was a friend, colleague and inspiration for me. Her leadership made it possible for many successful women to be where they are today. She will be sorely missed by everyone who values energy, vision and relentless persistence in pursuit of what is right and just."
Peterson was born in 1906 in Utah and began her career there as a teacher. She became associated with the labor movement during the early part of her career with positions at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the American Federation of Teachers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Peterson got involved in strike organizing and gained a solid understanding of worker problems.
Her career reached the highest levels of government in 1961 when President Kennedy appointed her director of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor and later as assistant secretary of labor, a position she held until January of 1969. Peterson also was executive vice chairman of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, between 1961 and 1963.
The mid- to late-1960s marked the early days of the consumer movement, including, notably, picketing of supermarkets by women complaining about high prices.
In 1964 President Johnson appointed Peterson to the new post of special assistant to the president for consumer affairs. She also was chairman of the President's Committee on Consumer Interests.
Peterson helped to ease some of the tensions and also continually drove home the message of the consumer's right to know more about products and pricing. It was a theme that would mark the rest of her career.
In 1970 Peterson joined Giant Food as vice president of consumer programs and consumer adviser to the president of the company. Appointing Peterson was a calculated gamble for Giant's management because she was a vocal advocate of consumer rights. Supermarkets at that time didn't make a practice of having a consumer affairs role.
Odonna Mathews, vice president of consumer affairs for Giant, who worked with Peterson at the company, recalled that many of Peterson's fellow consumer advocates had trouble understanding how Peterson could work for Giant and still represent the interests of consumers. But, said Mathews, "Esther would say that she got more things done within the business sector than she did in government -- because it took so long in government!"
Mathews recalled the many new programs instituted during Peterson's Giant tenure. "We did a lot with private label, testing of nutritional labeling, better labeling for over-the-counter drugs, toy-safety programs, postage-paid comment cards, and many other initiatives," she said. "Such programs have continued and grown."
Other major programs enacted included unit pricing, open dating and percentage-of-ingredients labeling.
Peterson also worked during the 1970s to help solidify the young Food Marketing Institute, which was formed from the merger of two predecessor associations in 1977, Hammonds said. The food industry had a lot of fence-mending to do with consumer groups, and Peterson stepped up to the plate. "We were happy that she chose food retailing for her role and helped turn conflict into common ground for cooperation," Hammonds said.
"She was a master at bringing different groups together," said her son Lars, who is senior government relations representative for the FMI. "She could help bring together different views."
Peterson joined the Carter administration in 1977 to revisit her consumer adviser role. She would later serve President Clinton in an honorary capacity with the U.S. delegation to the United Nations.
Peterson had said one of the biggest influences in her life was her late husband Oliver, whom she married in 1932 and who encouraged her to become active in social issues. Another important influence was Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Peterson worked in a few different positions.
A private service has already been held for Peterson, and there will be a memorial service in Washington in January.
Peterson is survived by three sons, Iver, Eric and Lars; a daughter, Karen Wilken, and 12 grandchildren.