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Consumer Protest


The United States was built on the philosophy of ensuring citizens' rights as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Throughout history, American citizens and consumers have expended considerable energy toward ensuring that organizations, retailers, and governments recognize and adhere to these rights. When citizens believe one of those rights has been overlooked or denied, they join in protest to rectify the perceived injustice, as was evidenced by the preAmerican Revolution Boston Tea Party.

Since the Boston Tea Party, consumers have determined to attain and maintain an undercurrent of resistance to unfair business and industry practices directly affecting consumers' health, welfare, and safety. Specifically, during certain volatile times (the 1890s Progressive era, the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the 1960s through the 1970s), consumer concerns have been more strongly emphasized. Women's magazines (e.g., McClure's and Ladies' Home Journal ) awakened women to the activist movement as a way of ensuring safe products, achieving justice, and attaining a level of equality.

Upton Sinclair's 1906 graphic novel The Jungle exposed unsanitary food-processing and meat-packing conditions. As a result, the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1937 more than 100 people died after using a liquid sulfur drug, Elixir Sulfanilamide, which proved the inadequacy of the Pure Food and Drug Act. A new law, the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, was enacted. Before marketing new drugs, manufacturers were required by this law to prove their safety to the FDA.

World War II (19391945) minimized consumer concerns until the early 1960s. President John F. Kennedy, who considered consumer protection to be an important issue, suggested improvements in existing programs and also proposed two new consumer protection programs: a special assistant for consumer affairs (which was carried out by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964) and a national oversight board made up of labor, cooperative,

and consumer groups, the Consumer Federation of America (established in 1967).

Individuals such as Ralph Nader (1934 ) and his advocacy groups have crusaded to ensure consideration and enforcement of consumer rights since the mid-twentieth century. Often these activities have resulted not only in important consumer victories, but have also brought about positive changes in the political climate and in the institution of self-regulation.


From the time of the appearance of the automobile on the American landscape until 1966, when a federal auto safety law was enacted, manufacturers had determined the level of safety for their automobiles. From the first death in 1899 until 1966, about 2 million automobile-related deaths and about 100 million injuriesa figure three times greater than U.S. combat losses in all military actionsoccurred. Consumer advocates postulated that many of those deaths and injuries could have been avoided had automobile producers included certain safety features as part of the standard package. Consumers began to demand automobile safety features such as air bags, seat belts, and turn signals.

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was established to ensure highway and automobile safety. It was responsible for setting minimal safety standards for automobiles, as well as ensuring consumer notification of automobile safety defects. NHTSA developed and issued thirty standards in 1967 aimed at reducing crash potential and resulting damage.


Based on the initial successes of his Public Interest Research Group, Nader formed the Public Citizen Tax Reform Research Group in 1972. The tax group's People and Taxes was the first publication to explain the manipulation of the tax system to subsidize big corporations, thereby burdening the average taxpayer. In 1976, after many successful tax-reform actions, Robert Brandon and his colleagues Tom Stanton and Jonathan Rowe published a succinct, understandable tax analysis, Tax Politics: How They Make You Pay and What You Can Do about It.

Nader and his Raiders have played major roles in addressing and resolving consumer issues on the rights of consumers, workers, and airline passengers; telecommunications; education; banking; automobile safety; environmental protection; and legal issues. Their campaigns, publications, and books have also resulted in the emergence of public opinion supporting environmental protection. Additionally, John C. Esposito's 1970 book, The Vanishing Air, declared that the Clean Air Act of 1967 had failed to initiate effective air pollution controls. At about the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency increased its focus on environmental issues, and the Clean Water Act (1972) was passed, both resulting from public reaction to the publication of David Zwick and Marcy Benstock's Water Wasteland, which critiqued the failures of pollution-control laws. Further, in response to 1970 statistical findings that worker deaths and disabilities totaled over 14,000 annually, Nader sponsored Joseph Page's report Bitter Wages, which helped turn the public and political tide toward enacting the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970.

While OSHA has often been perceived by consumer activists as being slow to act or react, it has established standards that ensure business compliance with workplace safety mandates. Additionally, OSHA standards aid in reducing and minimizing cancer risks resulting from the use of ordinary carcinogens, including industrial chemicals, such as benzene; pesticides, such as DBCP; ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas that is used for medical equipment sterilization; and formaldehyde, which is used in countless educational and industrial environments. All these standards stemmed from the work (from 1974 through 1983) of the Public Citizen Health Research Group headed by Sidney M. Wolfe.


In 1995 Monroe Friedman (1934 ) defined a consumer boycott as an action that threatens an organization's survival by depriving it of sales. Such action is "an attempt by one or more parties to achieve certain objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from making selected purchases in the marketplace" (p. 199). Local, state, and international boycotts appear to be less common than national boycotts. The duration of boycotts varies: Short-term boycotts usually last three months or less, whereas long-term boycotts sometimes last more than a year. Friedman also noted that boycott characteristics evolve over time. From the beginning announcement that a boycott is being considered, the level of militancy builds, and many media-oriented boycotts combine the power of the media with their own actions to achieve the desired outcome.

In 1994 protesters boycotted dairy products in an effort to prevent products from cows injected with bovine growth hormone (BGH), a hormone to increase bovine milk production, from being marketed. The hormone has the potential to create other medical complications, which could result in health risks to consumers. The FDA affirmed that the concerns expressed by boycott participants might be valid. In response to the boycott, several national food distributors and grocery chains announced that they would not sell goods from BGH-treated cows. BGH, however, continues to be used by some dairy farmers.


As mentioned earlier, self-regulation through codes of ethical conduct and establishing, reviewing, and maintaining product standards has become essential for maintaining fruitful customer/organizational interaction. Self-regulation has engendered creation of such consumer-focused organizations as Better Business Bureaus, the International Business Ethics Institute, and the Internet Law and Policy Forum.

Since the 1990s consumers have become more confident in the power of their joint efforts to protect their collective interests. Numerous new consumer-interest groups have organized, and the Internet has been recognized as a forum for both sharing information in educating private citizens about the impact of various big-business and governmental activities on their quality of life, and as a means to register various individual complaints with companies and governmental representatives. Consumers have come to recognize the Internet as an efficient, effective, and immediate tool for sharing concerns with their state and national legislators. Some legislators have indicated that they receive thousands of e-mails daily from their constituents.


Examples of legislative initiatives resulting from consumer-generated efforts include California Senator Dianne Feinstein's bipartisan Internet Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act (the Ryan Haight Bill), which required new Internet pharmacy disclosure standards and minimized instances where domestic Internet pharmacies can sell drugs without authentic prescriptions. The passing of the Electricity Deregulation and Blackout Prevention Act Initiative of 2004 was an effort by California citizens to restore the concept of customer service by the utility companies by eliminating deregulation legislation that had been passed in 2001. That deregulation resulted in the 2001 energy crisis and left many Californians without electric service, ultimately costing California billions of dollars., a consumer protection Web site for elections, is funded by citizen donations ( The National Consumers League works to protect consumers from telephone and online fraud.

Public Citizen, founded by Nader, is a public-interest, watchdog organization frequently critical of corporations. The efforts of Public Citizen are largely responsible for passage of the Lobbying Disclosure Act and the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act of 2005. Another Nader-founded nonprofit organization, Essential Information, encourages private citizens to become active and engaged in their communities. The Citizen Works Web site (, founded in April 2001 by Naderrecruits and trains citizen activists and directs them to focused action campaigns.

Issues that may have been paramount in consumers' minds prior to September 11, 2001 (such as genetically modified crops, Congressional ethics and election reform, and corporate welfare), became less prominent after day. Consumers began to refocus their activities on more bread-and-butter issues and the economy, such as changes in Medicaid and Medicare, prescription drugs, health-care management organizations, identity theft, homeland security, and utility costs (particularly gasoline and heating oil prices). Media outlets of all kinds, particularly since 9/11, have articulated growing consumer concerns in these areas. Further, changes in consumer attitudes toward these issues is also reflected in not only refocused national governmental agendas but also through the directions taken in activities of state governments, which are most directly affected and contacted by concerned consumers.

see also Consumer Advocacy and Protection


Alexander, Richard (1999). The development of consumer rights in the United States slowed by the power of corporate political contributions and lobbying. Retrieved January 11, 2006, from

Brobeck, Stephen (1990). The modern consumer movement: References and resources. Boston: G. K. Hall.

Cannarozzi, M. (2000). Cyber-patrols threaten Internet liberties. Retrieved January 11, 2006, from

Consumer@action. (2005). The evolution of consumer action: The history of the organization. Retrieved January 11, 2006, from

Esposito, John C. (1970). Vanishing air: The Ralph Nader study group report on air pollution. New York: Grossman.

Friedman, Monroe (1995). On promoting a sustainable future through consumer activism. Journal of Social Sciences, 51 (4), 197215.

Friedman, Monroe (1999). Consumer boycotts: Effecting change through the marketplace and the media. New York: Routledge.

Nader, Ralph (1965). Unsafe at any speed. New York: Grossman.

Page, Joseph A., and O'Brien, Mary-Win (1973). Bitter wages: Ralph Nader's study group report on disease and injury on the job. New York: Grossman.

Public Citizen Congress Watch.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Zwick, David, and Benstock, Marcy (1971). Water wasteland: Ralph Nader's study group report on water pollution. New York: Grossman.

Mary Jean Lush

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Consumer Protests


CONSUMER PROTESTS. When enough consumers become dissatisfied with their conditions, such as the lack of nutritional food, the cost of food, and the way food is produced, they have a tendency to organize with other like-minded people. They are then likely to take part in some forms of social action. Compared to a spontaneous riot, protests tend to be relatively organized and are often catalyzed by special-interest groupssometimes referred to as the "protest industry." That term is appropriate since some such groups are very well established and influential. They use a variety of techniques to draw attention to their cause and to obtain support.

Food riots and food protests are ongoing phenomena. Historically, food riots, common in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, have generally occurred when food is in short supply, whether this is due to weather, insect infestation, or weak economic conditions and increased food prices. For example, as a result of poor harvests in late eighteenth-century France, the price of bread soared, and riots were common in all areas of the country. French farmers have become famous for protesting government policies by driving tractors to Paris. The Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century was the launching point for bloody riots. It eventually led to the great Irish emigration and to technological advances in agriculture. The food riots of this period led to more organized food protests as basic needs for nutrition gave way to demands for food safety and security.

Increased food prices, along with insufficient and unequal distribution of food rations during both World Wars led women to protest all over Europe. More recently, economic mismanagement and rising food prices in Argentina led to riots despite the abundance of food on supermarket shelves. Likewise, riots in some African countries are commonplace as disreputable governments hoard food shipments from other nations for themselves while starvation is rampant in the poorer, more rural parts of the country.

Protests also occur when food is plentiful, but these protests and boycotts can be more political in nature. For instance, the 1965 grape boycott in California began as a result of wage disputes between domestic union workers, migrant workers, and grape growers. When negotiations between growers and workers stalled, union leader César Chavez called for a national boycott of table grapes. The four-year dispute led to more equitable contracts for workers and was the most successful boycott in American history.

Fears over food quality and safety are also catalysts for protest. In the 1980s, a national protest group used a public relations agency to launch a protest against the chemical Alar, which was used to keep apples on the tree longer and produce redder colors. However, the U.S. government did little to limit use of the chemical, and sales of the product continued, as did the spraying of apples, under consumer protest that children's lives were at stake. By 1989, apple sales had fallen by half, and the manufacturer was forced to take Alar off the market. The event led to some lawsuits by apple farmers against the network that broke the story that led to the consumer boycott.

More contemporary food issues attracting global attention include food safety, such as "mad cow disease" in Europe and the possible spread of this disease to humans. Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a neurodegenerative disease that eventually destroys a cow's brain. It has been responsible for the slaughter of millions of cattle and other food animals. Its human form (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) has killed 111 people in the United Kingdom alone (New Scientist, 20 July 2002). The death toll could rise because the incubation period is long (the "second wave") and because the disease could spread to other animals or countries. Protests over BSE have arisen on several fronts. Farmers protest that they are not being compensated for their losses by insurance companies or the government. Consumers protest both the marketing of the suspected meat and the slaughter of affected animals.

Another issue that is prompting protests involves the genetic modification of food. That is, genes have been inserted or removed to provide specific benefits. Foods have been genetically modified to resist disease, adverse weather conditions, and insects, and are modified to contain beneficial human nutrients. Proponents of biotechnology report that the seeds are environmentally safe, reduce the need for pesticides, and can be modified to include useful nutrients. Opponents are concerned that genetically modified foods may have hidden health hazards, may be detrimental to the development of the poorest countries, and may be environmentally unsafe.

Protests against genetically modified food have occurred more often in Europe than in the United States. This reflects different cultural views on science, technology, and agriculture. There are also differences in the government's credibility. Europe is regulating the process of genetic modification based on a variety of political and economic interests.

One of the main things to note about consumer protests is that they are often well-funded and centrally coordinated by groups who have a vested interest in the outcome of the protests. Most average consumers have little interest in or even awareness of some of the protests. For example, a coalition including various players in the organic industry and some environmental groups has worked together to raise public fears about the safety of modern food production technologies (including pesticides and genetic modification). The ultimate goal is to increase the sales of the more profitable organic foods. Through their campaigns they have been quite successful.

Overall, it is interesting to note how the focus of food protests shifts as a country goes through the economic development process. In poor countries, the main concern involves getting enough food to eat. It is only in the richer countries that consumers are able to spend time and money to make sure that their foods are of high quality and safety. What is certain is that the future will see more protests over both sets of issues.

See also Biotechnology; Food Riots; Food Supply, Food Shortages; Genetic Engineering; Meat.


Beardsworth, Alan, and Terresa Keil. Sociology on the Menu. New York: Routledge, 1997.

McIntosh, Alex. Sociologies of Food and Nutrition. New York: Plenum, 1996.

Taylor, Lynne. "Food Riots Revisited." Journal of Social History 30, no. 2 (1996): 483497.

Thomas Jefferson Hoban IV

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