Boomers Benefited from Expanded Consumer Protection

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) was the primary means of consumer protection. Everyone has heard of the snake oil salesmen of that time, and that the original recipe for Coca-Cola contained cocaine. There were few, if any, government regulations on consumer products. In 1905, Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, exposed the horrific conditions in meat packing facilities. The resulting outrage by the public led Congress to pass the Wiley Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and then twenty years later, to create the Food & Drug Administration to inspect and regulate food safety.

On March 15, 1962, President John F. Kennedy raised questions again about public safety as a topic important to the country’s economy and national interest. In a joint address to Congress, Kennedy talked about a basic Consumer Bill of Rights in which he outlined four principles:

• The right to safety
• The right to be informed
• The right to choose
• The right to be heard

Part of his speech read:

Two-thirds of all spending in the economy is by consumers. But they are the only important group in the economy who are not effectively organized, whose views are often not heard.

Ever since legislation was enacted in 1872 to protect the consumer from frauds involving use of the U.S. mail, the Congress and Executive Branch have been increasingly aware of their responsibility to make certain that our Nation’s economy fairly and adequately serves consumers’ interests.

If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.

Some of the legislation that arose from Kennedy’s notes to Congress was focused on the simple idea that government can further protect consumers by making more information available. Hence, the result was the beginning of accurate labeling requirements that we know as commonplace today. Subsequent bipartisan debate in Congress talked about needing drug companies to prove the efficacy of drug claims. Also mentioned as industries in which fraudulent claims were hurting consumers were the cosmetics industry, food (especially the inadequacy of meat factory inspections and the claims of dietary foods), and used cars. It’s hard to believe in our current environment that there were no laws prohibiting companies from including known carcinogenic ingredients in their consumer products prior to the 1960s. Congress also expressed concern about the lack of educational opportunities for consumers in the burgeoning TV industry, and looked to increase protections on competition and competitive pricing.

The roots of all the consumer protections we take for granted today can be traced to the boomer era of the 1960s and ’70s. That era’s legislation paved the way for further consumer protections that boomers remember, including seatbelts in cars. Then, as now, while the vast majority of Americans could agree on the principle of car safety, there was disagreement on how that could be achieved. Nonetheless, the data since the 1960s is clear that tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved since the laws requiring seatbelts were enacted. Likewise for food safety, and more.

Kennedy’s basic four principles can be seen in effect in today’s consumer protections from deceptive advertising, unfair business practices, fraud and unsafe products.

What do you recall of the days when there was little in the way of informative food labeling, wild advertising claims went unchecked, and cars did not have seatbelts, boomers?

Boomers Ate Peanuts … A Lot

There have been so many things that have changed dramatically since the boomer years of the 1950s through the ’70s, and Mister Boomer has explored dozens of them. Yet in the annals of wonder, there is the case of the current occurrence of peanut allergies. Food-based allergies diagnosed in children was not common in the boomer years; generally speaking and by comparison, less than one percent of the population was thought to have food allergies in 1960. While it is true that methodology and scientific knowledge has grown exponentially in the past six decades, it is also true that the rate of children diagnosed with a peanut allergy continues to rise, and has doubled just in the decade between the mid-90s to mid-00s. Certainly one has to wonder what has changed that might cause this circumstance.

The diagnosing of allergies was not new in the boomer years. The existence of allergies was known as far back as ancient Egypt, and Western doctors and scientists have been testing people for many types of allergies since the mid-1800s. Then, as now, the main reasons allergies seem to appear in any given location and time relate to environment, diet and food handling, water quality, hygiene and genetics.

Hay fever among children rose dramatically in the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century in Europe and the United States to the point where it was was called an epidemic. While there may have been many factors that affected this change in hay fever allergies among the population, one conclusion reached at that time was simply that people moved to areas that had more grass and ragweed. Likewise in the boomer years, the migration to the suburbs meant more possible exposure to these airborne allergens.

Peanut allergies, however, are not acquired by airborne particles. The story has not yet been definitively written as to the cause of the rise in peanut allergies. There are several theories being tested, and even some conclusions are being drawn. For example, prevailing thought now is that desensitization programs have been shown to be effective, and a new peanut allergy drug is being tested. However, since Mister Boomer is more interested in reliving nostalgia than wading into the nooks and crannies of scientific data, he’ll leave that discussion for the medically and scientifically minded.

To a boomer, the prevalence of the peanut allergy is puzzling, indeed, considering how often boomers ate peanuts. Many boomers will tell you that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were a huge part of their childhood diets. Candy bars made with peanuts were among the most popular, and roasted peanuts in the shell, or peeled, roasted and packaged, were readily available at all types of markets and in vending machines at bus stations, rest stops, train depots and gas stations.

Mister Boomer likes peanuts. He ate peanuts in many forms, from the carmel-covered peanuts in a box of Cracker Jacks to cracking open the shells of roasted peanuts when watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on TV. Halloween brought lots of opportunities for the enjoyment of peanuts. Mars used to advertise that the Snickers candy bar was “packed with peanuts,” and was among Mister B’s favorites; PayDay bars consisted of a roll of nougat covered in peanuts; Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups was a coveted score, and, of course, the black or orange wax paper-wrapped peanut butter kisses were a staple in the hunt for Halloween candy.

In the everyday realm there was always a jar of peanut butter in the Mister Boomer household. His sister ate more peanut butter than the two Boomer brothers combined. She liked it on celery sticks (not “ants on a log,” since she did not put raisins on hers), and sometimes she put it on her fried bologna. She ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all the time, to the point where all the glassware in the house came from jelly jars. The peanut butter brands most often found in the Mister B household were Jif or Skippy, and occasionally Peter Pan or Smuckers. Store name brands of peanut butter were avoided if at all possible, since the quality could not compare with the brand names.

When Mister Boomer entered the third grade, he began making his own lunch. Prior to that point, his mother packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread for him on the days when the lunchmeat ran out. Once he packed his own lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were a last resort. Mister B liked peanuts and peanut candy more than a PB&J.

Today most schools have prohibited students from bringing in peanuts in any form as a precaution for the youngsters with allergies. Most airlines used to give out bags of peanuts in flight. Now, if there is a snack at all, it is usually pretzels. Times have changed. Will the trend reverse any time soon?

How about you, boomers? What role did peanuts and peanut butter play in your boomer years diet? Do you have grandchildren now who are allergic to peanuts?