FOUR YEARS ago Ralph Nader went down to Plains, Ga., and umpired a softball game for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. It was symbolic gesture of support.
Four years ago consumer activists like Ellen Haas of Community Nutrition Institute formed a coalition supporting the Carter-Mondale ticket.
In exchange, the Carter candidacy had promised a prominent voice to consumers in the government's decision-making process and the appointment in consumer activists to important government roles.
As the Carter appointees were preparing to leave office, they were asked to reflect on their accomplishments during the last four years. And those consumers activists who stayed "on the outside" were asked to critique those performances.
The questions were put to former assistant agriculture secretary Carol Foreman, former presidential consumer adviser Ester Peterson, FTC Commissioner (and chairman during the Carter administration) Michael Pertschuk and two members of the administration who were not consumer activists, former FDA commissioner, Dr. Donald Kennedy and the current commissioner, Dr. Jere Goyan.
Asked to rate their performances were Ralph Nader, Michael Jackson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Ellen Haas, director of the consumer division of Community Nutrition Institute.
Generally these Carter appointees were given high marks by the critics, which was surprising in light of the severe criticism they had often leveled against the appointees while they were in office. The response of the appointees was often surprising, too. All of them had come away with high regard for the bureaucracy. Only one of them expressed more than the normal amount of frustration at not being able to accomplish what he had set out to do. But they were unanimous in their displeasure with the ability to special-interest groups to manipulate Congress. And to a greater or lesser degree, they blamed Congress for its inability to get more done.
The regulator's perceptions of their accomplishments were generally echoed by their critics. Carol Foreman
Foreman gave herself good marks for streamlining the Food Stamp Program, for making more needy people eligible, for reducing fraud and for expanding the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which is designed to improve the nutrition of pregnant women, infants and children. The critics agreed. She is also very proud of the publication of "Dietary Guidelines," which offers seven suggestions for improving health through dietary changes. What she can't understand is why the cattlemen and egg producers "didn't declare victory" instead of fighting the guidelines when they were published since, as Foremen said, "the document is so moderate," compared to the more drastic dietary changes that had been recommended earlier.
Michael Jackson gave Foreman high marks for "the tremendous support she had given to a sound nutrition policy." But he and Ellen Haas she didn't do enough to clear up the nitrite controversy. "Today there is still a misunderstanding over whether nitrites cause cancer or nitrosamines do," Haas said. "Foreman had an opportunity to communicate a good deal of information but didn't. The whole question of food safety is stil misunderstood."
Foreman doesn't see it quite that way. "We did not have enough data on which to take regulatory action" to ban nitrites, Foreman said. But the department did attempt to make it easier for manufacturers of meats processed without nitrites to market them. The response of the pork industry was ironic, Foreman thought: "Once again all that campaign rhetoric about getting the government off the backs of business, which is exactly what we tried to do, and the companies that manufacture products with nitrite objected to more competition," Foreman said with a smile. "Sometimes business does want to be regulated. Or, as one wag said, 'Where you stand on regulation depends on where you sit.'"
Haas gave Foreman high marks for "raising the consciousness of the department to consumer concerns," something of which Foreman is proud. "We tried to get the American people to think of USDA as a cabinet-level agency relating to farmers, relating to industry and relating to consumer. Before USDA was viewed as generally hostile to the public." Nader agreed, but, he said, in failing to establish "a broad citizen base, everything she accomplished she accomplished inside." According to Nader, that is why it will all be wiped out under the new agriculture secretary. Michael Pertschuk
The greatest disappointment for the outgoing chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, who retains his seat on the commission until Septemeber 1984, was congressional action which stopped the commission from studying regulations to govern children's television advertising. "We spent so much time fighting off efforts to undo what the commission had done, we simply didn't have the time to do the job, and that was frustrating," Pertschuk said.
FTC's proposed children's advertising rule became the lightning rod for special-interest lobbying. Some outside critics think Pertschuk brought the problems on himself by speaking out forecfully while the issue was under consideration at the commission. Others say that even if Pertschuk had been silent the special interests still would have lobbied to prevent the rule from taking effect.
Nader said, "Regulatory agencies and good regulators will never pevail against Congress and big business until they develop a citizen base. Strategically, perhaps Pertschuk made a mistake in beginning with children's advertising, because he was left with little time to go after anything else."
"I think perhaps Mike's leadership was a particular target because he had been on the Hill before," where he was known for his consumer activism, said Haas. "But I think he did a good job. He was able to protect the consumer in the marketplace. Perhaps he didn't instill as much enthusiasm among the Hill staff as he did among his own staff. The Hill never seemed to understand" what the commission was trying to do about children's advertising.
According to Jacobson, "Pertschuk was extremely effective at informing the public." Pertschuk agrees that the FTC has been effective in that area. "There is a much greater public awareness between food and health and well-being, and a greater awareness on the part of the manufacturer, and an increased willingness to assume responsibility," he said.
But on the whole, Pertschuk is "not proud" of the commission's accomplishments in the food area, with the exception of the food advertising rule, which, he says, "will bring some order out of advertisers' nutritional claims" for their products. The rule sets specific standards for the nutritional content of food that must be met before certain claims or comparisons can be made for it. Donald Kennedy and Jere Goyan
Nader described former FDA commissioner Kennedy, who left after two years to become president of Stanford University, as "very good. He was smart, he spoke back when the drug industry attacked, he was candid. His greatest failure was that he didn't replace some of the older people who ran the FDA's food section, so he couldn't get his will translated into action." tAnother Nader said Kennedy did "very little with food problems. It was a second-level priority."
Jacobson agreed that Kennedy was not "extremely concerned with food issues" but, he said "in one area Kennedy was terrific. He explained to people how cancer studies have to be done."
While agreeing that Kennedy performed very well and commending him for reorganizing FDA to give consumers a more prominent voice in its policy-making decisions, Haas said, "Truthfully, I don't know what he accomplished. There was a feeling that there would be changes in food labeling and nutrition labeling, but I think his time was too short."
In a sense, Kennedy agrees with that assessment. "I think the main accomplishment was a general improvement in the public understanding of FDA's mission. I don't mean just the risks, the kinds of cases like saccharin represent." Kennedy said in a telephone interview, "but also the kinds of trade-offs that have to be made."
That he couldn't get changes in food-labeling regulations was a disappointment to Kennedy. The agency held extensive public hearings to find out what kinds of information people wanted on food labels. But no regulations were ever proposed to incorporate these changes. "We built a very good case, and quite frankly, the industry failed to see a piece of self-interest. I think they could have gotten on the side of the angels and won that one and done something worthwhile for everyone and improved their own image with consumers."
Kennedy's successor, Jere Goyan, refused to be interviewed until after he leaves FDA. He has resigned but will not leave the agency until the end of February. Goyan has expressed an interest in staying on in the new administration.
The critics say he has shown no real interest in food safety and nutrition issues. Goyan was dean of the school of pharmacy University of California, San Francisco, before he became commissioner. He was given high marks for his outspoken and sensible attitude toward the use of drugs. Esther Peterson
The defeat of the Consumer Protection Agency bill was a great blow to Esther Peterson; and while she will not publicly blame the lack of support from the White House for its defeat, the critics will. "Her failure to convince Carter of the importance of the consumer mission," way down on the totem pole. cAs a result, Carter wasn't there "when the bill was before Congress."
Haas said it was not Peterson's failure, but the failure of her office: "They didn't involve consumer organizations around the country to form a network that could have been a lobbying force for the bill."
Peterson blames special-interest groups. It was her greatest disappointment . . . "how inadequate we were. We could not get over the publicity that people didn't want any more government.
"I had never seen the likes of the power of special-interest groups and their interlocking ability to influence Congress," said Peterson, who has spent years lobbying.
Both Nader and Haas felt that one of Peterson's greatest accomplishments was publication of the "People Power" book, a resource book for grassroots consumer activists.
What will happen in the next four years? The critics are more pessimistic than the appointees.
Nader believes the consumer movement will have to regroup. "The government will be taken away from consumers. They will be shut out of policy making." Jacobson agrees.
The insiders are more optimistic. "People are concerned over the safety of the food supply. I don't think that's going to change," Foreman said. "If the public feels government has gone too far, one of the best alternatives is information. That strikes me as a very Republican idea," Foreman said.
"People don't want protection taken away," Peterson said. "They don't want regulations wiped away."
"All the polls show there is strong public support for regulations, but the public is not getting its money's worth. We've had to learn how to regulate better," Pertschuk said.