Mother of consumerism Esther Peterson: Nutritional labeling, open dating, unit pricing among her contributions.

December 24, 1997

"SHE HAD A velvet hammer." That's how Esther Peterson was described by a daughter of Lyndon Johnson, the president who made her the first White House adviser on consumer affairs. It was a fitting description of the Washington resident, who died last weekend at 91.

Another apt way to view Ms. Peterson would be "mother of the consumerism movement." Only crusader Ralph Nader has done as much to awaken the public to defective and unsafe products and misleading business practices. She did it mainly through educational campaigns and in a less confrontational way.

Back in the 1930s, she organized a successful -- and genteel -- strike among women sewing aprons at home who were upset by a new company policy that would have made the work more difficult and time-consuming without an increase in wages. She was still active in the 1990s at the United Nations for the Clinton administration.

But she will be remembered in the Baltimore-Washington region primarily as the tireless, high-profile consumer voice of Giant Food Inc. One of her most frequently promoted lines: "You have a right to be informed."

Her many TV commercials touting smart shopping made her a celebrity on her frequent visits to Giant stores. She persuaded Giant to take the lead in unit pricing of shelf items; nutritional labeling of private-brand food; open dating of products that customers could easily decipher, and lots of free material on ways to be a health-conscious and wise shopper.

In all, Ms. Peterson served under four presidents, two as White House consumer adviser. Her private career as a vice president for consumer affairs at Giant didn't begin until 1971, when she was 65. Little did we know that she would still be active 25 years later.

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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