Ruth Desmond -- housewife, consumer activist, and good at both -- is recalling the infamous peanut-butter hearings of 1965-66. She attended them, day after day, making sure she got the message across to the Food and Drug Administration: Peanut butter should contain at least 95 percent peanuts.
But Desmond didn't leave the house without first apologizing to her husband. Dinner would have to be something easy; she'd have to stay from 9 to 5. Because, she told him, "I cannot leave them alone, those lawyers."
Desmond will be 78 years old this month, and for 25 years as founder and president of the Arlington-based Federation of Homemakers, she has been just that, a homemaker, concerned about her family as well as others. Only her battle hasn't been against the PTA or the supermarket manager, but against corporate lawyers, government bureaucrats and industry officials.
She says she has been told that she is the only housewife to read through the FDA's hearing room records ("I read their bread record, I read all about their dyes"). She has sat through 10 years of FDA appropriation hearings ("they the FDA housed some of their finest scientists in South Agriculture basement, just like they were laboratory animals!") and has testified at numerous others.
In her chatty, cheery way, she can tell you who was -- and is -- chairman of what subcommittee, who testified at what hearing ("that's Dr. Huper. H-U-P-E-R") and who are Washington's conflict-of-interest players.
Desmond's issues have been primarily food safety, and she often makes the effects on children her focal point. She has tackled nitrites in baby food, additives in jelly beans, labeling of hot dogs and imitation ingredients, caffeine in soft drinks, saccharin, cyclamates, red dye.
And she started it all before consumer activists were lawyers and doctors and professional organizers. She doesn't care much about publicity or about attracting the press with catchy one-liners. It isn't her style.
"She was really the first person to put down roots and go after these namby-pamby regulatory agencies," says Ralph Nader. In fact, says Nader, she is really the only remaining "heiress" to a tradition, a tradition of home-economics activism that started at the turn of the century with women such as Carry Nation.
She shows the "extraordinary ability to make a difference as one person," says Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen Health Research Group.
And she has done it all with a unique style of sincerity and humor that even the people who often disagree with her admire. "You have to respect a woman who has such genuine desires," says Naomi Kulakow, director of public participation at the FDA.
You have to respect a woman who is just thrilled that her husband is renewing her subscription to Food Chemical News for Valen- tine's Day and who, despite arthritis and an ill husband, is still writing letters, following issues, getting irate. All as a volunteer.
She had never been a maverick or leader, says Desmond. There were Girl Scout activities for her daughter, of course, and maybe the time she wrote to the company complaining about a Hostess Cupcake commercial -- "Hostess Cupcakes are Guaranteed Better than Homemade." That "just irked me," she explains.
Her involvement started in the late 1950s when Desmond's husband, Gordon, found out he had bladder cancer. She spent hours researching cancer at the library, and came across a book that laid partial blame on pesticide residues. She called the FDA, infuriated. What was the agency doing about all of this?
If you're so interested, why don't you come to our food additive hearings, said the FDA employee. So she did, remembering that an industry doctor told the few members of the media there to "be careful" what they wrote. No news of the hearings appeared, according to Desmond. She was horrifed. She had to alert the public.
She joined forces with a few women she met at the hearings, inaugurating the Federation of Homemakers. The federation started a newsletter, which is still published quarterly by Desmond. "Fighting For Wholesome Foods Since 1959," reads the letterhead, which lists the board of directors as "Mrs. Arnold Singer, vice president, Mrs. Thomas W. Richards, second vice president and so on."
Her daughter, who left a job as an executive secretary to drive a Fairfax County school bus and take care of 26 stray cats and four dogs, runs the addressograph, says Desmond, and the letterhead lists her, Mrs. Richard E. Swauger, as treasurer.
The federation's office is located somewhere in Arlington, although she won't permit a reporter to see it because, she says, the paint is falling down from the ceiling. She regrets that the federation, which she estimates now has between 4,000 and 5,000 members -- some of which are grandchildren of the originals -- hasn't gotten more attention over the years, although after the peanut-butter hearings she got a lot of male members ("you'd be surprised how many men like peanut butter on their toast in the morning").
The federation had as its first issue the cranberry scare of 1959 but didn't come into the public spotlight until 1965 with the peanut-butter hearings. The hearings came in the midst of a decade-long FDA ordeal about the percentage of peanuts that peanut butter should conta . But you want the rest of us to eat sawdust." After she sued the Department of Agriculture -- and won, in both the district court and on appeal -- for permitting "all beef" and "all meat" to appear on hot dog labels, even though they contained other ingredients, she called the Department of Justice to say it would be an injustice if the agency took the case to the Supreme Court. "This is ridiculous," she said. "Our own government is against us, the people, the taxpayers, the consumers. This is terrible. I'll just tell the world how outrageous this is if you go on."
Desmond and the Federation of Homemakers cut their own path, says Robert Anderson, now the division counsel with Vic's health-care products but in the late 1960s an attorney in the FDA's general counsel's office. Sometimes they took the side of the "traditional contras," said Anderson, but they often took an alternative position.
Anderson says that Desmond and her group's point of view were "not always supported by the best science," but that they pursued the issues honestly and consistently. (Desmond says she never intended to be an expert, she just wanted to be informed.)
Gary Yingling, president of the Food and Drug Law Institute, an educational organization made up of corporate food and drug lawyers, said Desmond has "more of a gut reaction" but that that doesn't lessen her impact. "She's not an easy person to work with. If Ruth didn't agree with you, forget it. She would chide me and tell me that my policy was bad news."
Yingling did say that Desmond doesn't really have the resources or power of an organization such as Public Citizen, but that the industry pays close attention to her because it never knows whether she'll highlight an issue that another consumer group will pick up on.
In fact, this may be where her strongest impact lies, as an "alerter." Her involvement in the peanut-butter hearings, for instance, brought out the futility of the Federal Trade Commission, says Nader, an issue that he and his group pursued subsequently.
About a year ago, says Desmond's consultant, Frank McLaughlin, professor of business and management at the University of Maryland, the American Bar Association, the Food and Drug Law Institute and the FDA wanted to give Desmond an award for her tenacity and service to the consumer movement.
So after some advance planning, says McLaughlin, he asked Desmond what she would think about receiving such an award. When she found out that the regulators and the regulated would be awarding her jointly, she declined. It would undercut what she had been preaching all these years; she didn't think the FDA should be linked with industry.
Desmond on eating: "I like to eat. That's why I was excellent saying I wanted safe foods, because they could see I liked to eat, I wasn't a fanatic."
Desmond on cooking: She's a "regular good American-style" cook, makes dishes from scratch and stays away from convenience products. She used to bake her own bread and grind her own wheat berries. She buys her meat from Gwyn Garnett, a local farmer who raises additive-free beef. Unfortunately, she says, she loves butter and cream.
Desmond on current and future projects: Inform federation members about the status of irradiated foods. Get the FDA to remove caffeine in soft drinks from Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status. Oppose the provisions of the Hatch Food Safety Bill that weaken protections for consumers.
Desmond on disappointments: "I'm not so disappointed in Food and Drug. I sort of expect it because of the pressures. But sometimes members of Congress disappoint me."
Desmond on surprises: "I've always been amazed. I suppose because I have a pleasant manner, they the food industry will tell me the most outrageous, confidential things. I just wonder why, I would say to myself inwardly, are you telling me this?" She pauses. " 'Cause I will most certainly blab it." She laughs.