ESTHER PETERSON, 1906-1997

Esther Peterson -- the consumer and labor activist -- has died, and with her has gone one of the truest friends the food-retailing industry ever had.That her epitaph could include anything even close to the idea that she was a "friend of food retailing" is both a tribute to Mrs. Peterson and illustrative of how the industry has changed in the past generation or so. (See Page 1.)Mrs. Peterson started

Esther Peterson -- the consumer and labor activist -- has died, and with her has gone one of the truest friends the food-retailing industry ever had.

That her epitaph could include anything even close to the idea that she was a "friend of food retailing" is both a tribute to Mrs. Peterson and illustrative of how the industry has changed in the past generation or so. (See Page 1.)

Mrs. Peterson started her long career as a teacher, thereby coming to know garment workers and other laborers. From that sprang an abiding interest in all things related to labor and consumers. Indeed, she organized a strike in Boston's garment industry during the 1930s, then worked for several labor unions over the years.

Events took a turn in 1961 when she was appointed President Kennedy's assistant secretary of labor. That post allowed her to work from the inside on behalf of labor and consumers. She continued with the Johnson Administration, then later with that of Carter and, in a largely honorary post, with that of Clinton.

What she wanted for food consumers during early periods, and later, can be simply summarized: She wanted them to know enough to make an informed purchasing decision. Even at that time, she believed consumers should know what the content of food products was, what its quality was, what its freshness was, how nutritious it was and what its price was, by the unit -- radical ideas, all. And for such ideas, she was seen by the food industry as a great enemy.

Robert Aders, the retired president of the Food Marketing Institute, told me last week he recalls well that during the early period, when he was an executive for Kroger Co., he was summoned to an industry meeting in Washington. Without knowing what the meeting was about, he went in and was told in no-uncertain terms that the agenda was to "get rid of Esther Peterson."

Bob opposed the idea and realized that "the supermarket industry was getting cocky. We thought we were doing such a great job for the consumer, but she was telling us that wasn't so." Food people weren't alone in vilifying Mrs. Peterson. The Advertising Federation of America labeled her "the most pernicious threat to advertising in America." Her crime? She observed that "some advertisers peddle respectable humbug."

It was in this context that Giant Food executives shocked the food industry by appointing Mrs. Peterson the chain's consumer adviser. Giant executives took no little heat from their peers for the appointment. And, sure enough, Mrs. Peterson worked for the consumer from inside Giant, pressing for now-standard imperatives as nutritional brochures, content labeling, unit pricing, phosphate-free detergents, attenuation of certain food additives and, at the base of it all, listening to what consumers want from stores and products.

Through her work, Giant, and the rest of the industry, found out that catering to what consumers want is not just good for business, it's the only business. Mrs. Peterson changed from great foe to best friend, or had the industry itself changed?

"Esther Peterson's contribution to the supermarket industry was as profound as anyone's I've known in the last 40 years of being in this business," Bob said. Clearly, a great industry friend is gone, but her memory will live through the FMI's Esther Peterson award, given annually since 1987 to those who have contributed much toward helping food retailers better serve customers. The most recent recipient was Elizabeth Dole.