COFFEE WAS selling for 69 cents a pound. Cantaloupes were 25 cents each. You could buy a head of iceberg lettuce for 19 cents and five one-pound loaves of white bread for $1.
But people were beginning to complain about the high cost of food: "I used to spend $20 a week on food six months ago," complained the wife of a chemical company executive. "Now I can barely make it on $25."
The levels of DDT discovered in mothers' milk were high enough that one wag commented that if it came in any other containers the Food and Drug Administration would have seized it.
One company proudly announced the arrival of 100 percent corn oil margarine, and the first cholesterol-freee egg substitute was marketed.
Within weeks after the ban on cyclamates, a "safe" sugar substitute had already been marketed. It was The year was 1969, and many of the concerns of the next decade had already begun to bubble to the surface. The White House Conference on Food Nutrition and Health aired the problems of malnutrition amoung the poor in this country and overnutrition among the well-off. The conference was also the forum in which emerging consumer spokespersons (still known as spokesmen) vented their frustrations. Among the changes they were seeking were food labeling standards as good as those found on dog food, percentage-of-ingredient labeling, uniform grading of fresh foods, open dating, nutrition labeling. Ten years later, only one of those changes has taken place: voluntary nutrition labeling and many of those who had worked for it have become disenchanted because it is too confusing in its present form.
Despite the complaints of a small but growing band of consumer activists at the White House conference, both government agencies and the food industry felt "they were doing a pretty good job and weren't anxious to rock the boat."
But consumer activists weren't the only ones complaining.They were mirroring the frustions of the public. A survey of shoppers turned up many complaints: prewrapped foods that hid the bad spots; the inability to tell the freshness of such products as bread and cakes because of coded dates; dripping meat packages; tiny candy bars in large packages; obviously refrozen food; low calorie food without the calorie content; packages that said "push here," and didn't.
A few speakers at that year's Newspaper Food Editors Conference said consumers had legitimate complaints about food additives, inflation and unsubstantiated claims made for new products.Virginia Knauer, the president's consumer adviser, said there ought to be more nutrition information in newspaper food pages.
There were some glimmerings of concern from government and industry. The Department of Agriculture attempted to set fat levels for hot dogs at 33 percent. Today they are 30 percent.
At the same time, the USDA was fighting with chicken producers over the amount of chicken that could be put in hot dogs. This was in the days before the opinions of the people who would be eating the food were considered.The USDA said 15 percent, "otherwise they wouldn't be hot dogs." The producers wanted 75 percent chicken. USDA won.
In 1969 Safeway announced a pilot project for unit pricing in two stores. after eight days a store official said it hadn't made any difference in the way people shopped. Safeway didn't know whether it would institute unit pricing in all its stores, a project reported to cost $10,000 per store.
Some people had begun to complain about the quality of convenience foods, and one of the earliest consumer reporters, Arthur Rowse, wrote:
"The only thing rising faster than prices at your friendly local food store is the level of water in popular products."
Sidney Margolius, the dean of consumer writers, said women didn't know how to shop and weren't willing to take the time to do so, but he admitted it was very diffcult. "Consumers are bewildered by what they are buying." How can they figure out what things are, he asked, when there are nine sizes of olives and "large" is the third-smallest?
Another of the early watchers of the consumer scene said that this country is educating "scientific geniuses and illiterate consumers." He, too, agreed that there was "a need for the market-place to be made easier to shop in."
But it hasn't. If anything, it has become more complex. It was the year that long-cooking rolled oats and instant oats were joined by Instant Oatmeal with Maple and Brown Sugar Artificial Flavor. When General Mills introduced its new sugar-coated cereal Kaboom, it was proud of the fact that it contained 100 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowances for certain vitamins and minerals. Sara Lee Strawberry Cheesecake first hit the frozenfood cases. Sanka appeared in freezedried form. Diet margarine entered the confusing world of butter substitutes, and a caffeine-free cola made its debut. It was a cola before its time.
Reflecting the still-untarnished love affair Americans were carrying on with their convenience foods, the $25,000 prize winner in the Pillsbury Bake-Off was Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs, refrigerated crescent rolls wrapped around marshmallows, topped with an icing. This new form of "baking," propmted me to write that "home baking has gone the way of home canning and hand laundering."
There were stories about stretching meat dollars, reflecting the concern with "high" meat prices. A pound of chuck steak cost 89 cents; sirloin steak was available for 99 cents a pound on sale, and ground chuck was 89 cents. Food prices were rising at the rate of 4 percent a year and the advice experts were offering on how to cut costs was to shop around.
1969 was the beginning of the end of low food prices: One of the last times we would see pineapples for 29 cents each, a head of cauliflower for 49 cents, port loin at 55 cents a pound. Rod Leonard, executive director of Community Nutrition Institute, notes that the cost of food rose less than 2 percent a year between 1945 and 1970.
At the same time Washingtonians were making tentative forays into Foreign Foods beyond French and southern Italian. Interest in Mexican food was spurred on by reports of Richard Nixon's favorite Mexican restaurant where he ate chiles rellenos and sopaipillas. An Americanized recipe for pesto appeared in the newspaper calling for 8 fresh basil leaves or 3/4 teaspoon dried basil for a sauce to cover a pound of spaghetti. Today's recipe is Italian using a cup of fresh basil, tightly packed. Dried basil wouldn't even be considered.
Someone who had lived in Italy had her own pasta-making machine, a first possibly for a non-Italian in this city.
People still were arguing over what constituted soul food. And the newly elected Maryland governor. Marvin Mandel, wanted his traditional Sunday morning breakfast -- bagels, lox and cream cheese -- even though he was living in Annapolis. They had to be imported from Baltimore.
By 1974, the 99-cent-a-pound sirloin steak had gone to $1.39 a pound. The 89-cent-a-pound chuck roast was $1.29; ground beef was 79 cents a pound and the pork loin had gone up 34 cents a pound. The same dollar that bought you five loaves of bread five years before bought you only three loaves. A pound of coffee had doubled in price.
But turkeys were only 2 cents a pound more, and chickens 10 cents a pound higher. You could still buy 3 pounds of apples for $1, bananas for 10 cents a pound. A dozen oranges cost 69 cents; a pound of fresh trout could be had for 49 cents. And a Maryland reader was feeding her family of 11 on $68 a week.
But the first energy crunch of the 1970s was already upon us and prices were escalating so rapidly -- 20 percent over the previous year -- that in the summer of 1974, Safeway announced it would no longer reprice groceries that were already on the shelves.
A Washington Post story in September said that consumer specialists blame high food prices on "High concentration of economic power in the food industry, leading to excess profits . . ."
One day later The Post reported that internal Federal Trade Commission memos showed that the commission staff "had amassed substantial information that linked the market power of Giant and Safeway with the high price of food in the D.C. area and the inability of other chains to enter the market." At the time the two chains controlled 58 percent of the market.
We were into shortages: sugar, toilet paper and grain. What became known as the Russian Wheat Deal had depleted American supplies to the point that American grain-fattened beef became a luxury item. Grass-fed beef made its debut, but many people were not ready to give up the tenderness and juiciness of their fatted calves. Grass-fed beef went back to pasture.
There was talk of another beef boycott, like the one a few years before. It never materialized, but a sugar boycott did, aided and abetted by supermarkets.
Soy mix to extend ground beef started to take up more space on the grocery shelves, but most of it disappeared as soon as the ground beef crunch was over. Vegetarianism, or at least the idea that it was possible to get enough protein without meat, gained a foothold.
Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who had already told American consumers that if they couldn't afford steak they should eat hamburgers, assured the country that food supply was adequate.
Nonetheless, people were cutting back and trading down. They pulled out their pressure cookers to reduce on energy consumption and started using cents-off coupons which they had been throwing away. One woman became an overnight celebrity playing the coupon refund game and teaching others this "new" way to save money. But she and a small band had already been at it for 25 years. Home canning, which 5 years before had become a relic of another age was on the upswing. President Ford offered the country an inflation fighting program that included all of the old cliches: buy specials, buy the large size, shop around.