Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland appears to have captured Ralph Nader's heart.
Nader and two of his associates at Congress Watch, Joan Claybrook and Frances Zwenig, met with Bergland last week to discuss ways of making the department more open to consumer input.
Bergland told reporters later that "Nader was surprised" at some of the things being planned. And Nader has confirmed that he thinks "very highly" of the Secretary because of his "defense of the family farmer, his determination to take women and blacks into the administration, his concerns about the deterioration of foods like processed meats (including the use of sodium nitrite in processed pork products) and because he is determined to stamp out commercial crimes" such as grain inspection irregularities.
Bergland has already implemented one technique for making himself more available: Tuesdays through Fridays he has set aside the time from 3 to 4 p.m. for press interviews.
He also told Nader, and the reporters who met later with him at lunch, that he would like to set up either an inspector general or an ombudsman, possibly both, in USDA.
This official would allow the department's field inspectors, "the whistle-blowing types," as Zwenig described them, to have direct access to the Secretary "instead of getting swallowed up in channels." Zwenig said if an inspector general's office is set up, Bergland plans to appoint a lawyer with prosecuting experience to head it.
Bergland said it's essential that information of wrongdoing get to him. "If a grain inspector says something is wrong and reports it to his superior who says 'don't rock the boat,' it's important that the inspector's complaint have some way to come to me."
An ombudsman might, in addition, handle complaints from the public at large, Bergland said. "We don't have such a system now, and don't plan to continue the Consumer Adviser office."
The Consumer Adviser during the Nixon and Ford administrations, Nancy Steorts, recommended the creation of a consumer ombudsman when she left office earlier this month.
Bergland told reporters he was not yet sure how to get consumer input into the department, but he plans to "set up some system to maintain contact with the real world."
He said he "might set up some routine . . . to get out of this town two days a month and go into factories and homes and farms . . . and talk to people."
A Minnesota farmer himself, Bergland said he had "never really been in Appalachia or on a North Alabama tenant farm," and he feels he can better understand problems of people who live there if he is in touch with them.
The concept of direct farmer-to-consumer marketing also appeals to Bergland.But he made it clear that such a system would not necessarily mean lower prices. Instead, he said, "It may open new avenues for producers and it may mean things taste better."
"I like those 9-pound chickens you can't find anymore and I'd be willing to pay twice the price for a good old-fashioned chicken," he said.
Nader described Bergland as "a determined man who displays a sense of justice," a man who appears to have plans to shake up the Agriculture Department.