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Consumer protection

federal food commission products

Consumer protection, state, federal, and local laws that set standards for goods and services sold in the United States and the regulatory agencies that maintain these standards, as well as the efforts of consumers themselves to organize against misleading or unfair marketing practices. Scientific and technological advances have led to increasingly sophisticated goods, but modern sales methods, advertising, prepackaging, and self-service make it increasingly difficult for the consumer to know from personal experience the quality and value of the goods offered. The consumer may also need protection from artificial price-fixing by monopolies and from deliberate fraud. There are more than 1,000 separate federal consumer protection programs under the control of over 400 separate federal agencies and divisions. The federal government sets standards covering definition of weights and measures, packaging, the composition and purity of food and drugs, and descriptions of products in advertisements and brochures. The best-known federal arbiters, inspectors, and enforcers of these standards are the Food and Drug Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. But the Departments of Transportation, Justice, Commerce, and House and Urban Development are also heavily involved in consumer protection, as are the Federal Power Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Interstate Commerce Commission.

The first important consumer group in the United States, the National Consumer's League (formed in 1899), awarded its own label to manufacturers whose goods passed its inspection, and this label became widely regarded as a guarantee of quality. Its work inspired numerous articles and books, one of which, The Great American Fraud, by Samuel Hopkins Adams, contributed largely to the passing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the founding, in 1908, of the American Home Economics Association. Consumer protection became a leading feature of this era of “progressive” politics. More dramatically, Upton Sinclair's best-seller The Jungle (1906) exposed conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry and led to the formation of Clean Food clubs. Your Money's Worth (1924) compared a wide range of products by brand name. One of its authors, E. J. Schlink, went on to found a Consumer's Club, incorporated in 1929 as Consumers Research, Inc., the first independent testing agency to publish its findings (Consumer Reports). Its efforts and the appearance of more books exposing manufacturers' frauds and malpractices led to the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938. During World War II consumer protection was greatly extended by the activities of the Office of Price Administration.

The consumer movement gained new life and impetus in the 1960s, mainly through the efforts of Ralph Nader, who published Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), a muckraking look at the auto industry. Nader used the money from his writing to finance further investigations of a broad variety of products. With his volunteer helpers, “Nader's Raiders,” he roused the indignation of consumers throughout the country. The word consumerism was first used in an uncomplimentary sense, but the movement's broad popularity soon provoked a more responsive attitude from both government and industry. On a federal level the Food and Drug Administration began to make more stringent tests of all the products it passed, as did other government regulatory agencies in all fields. Congress introduced a record number of new bills on the subject, including the Nader-inspired Auto Safety Act (1965) and the “truth in lending” bill (Consumer Credit Protection Act, 1969), and conducted investigations into truth in advertising and packaging.

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