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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > The Lessons of the Meat Boycott

The nationwide consumer meat boycott drive may become a landmark event in the history of the consumer movement. Although the designated week for a maximum effort was April 1-8, the boycott’s effect on the future outlook and organization of consumers could be its most significant contribution.
First and foremost, it arose out of a series of rapidly spreading and spontaneous outrages over meat prices in cities and towns around the country. Although joined by established consumer groups, it was an eruption of largely unorganized housewives who became organized and adept at getting their message to a wider public in a very short time. As one of the leaders in the Louisville, Ky.,area put it, she had never done anything like this before but she was learning fast.
Lesson one, then, to the consumer movement is that ad hoc consumer rebellions can be organized and loosely linked into a national force simply out of a sincere and widespread feeling by buyers that “they’ve had enough.” They may not be permanent organizations but they can have an indelible impact.
Second, the meat boycott has had a discernible, immediate effect on lowering meat prices around the country. In the Los Angeles area, supermarket spokesmen acknowledged they were reducing prices in response to the furor. Nationally, price indices were reported to be declining. This may be a tactical retreat but more likely it represents a breaking of the upward price momentum and a little more self-restraint on pricing/elements in the meat marketing system. Lesson two is that consumers can see some measurable effect in the marketplace for their vigorous objections.
Third, the meat boycott has contributed to a political as well as economic consciousness to many consumers. The era of the kneejerk reaction in the supermarket may be over but the focus on politicians may just be starting. Irate letters pouring into Congress and the White House these days are registering on the antennae of the elected ones. They are saying directly: “Do something.” Long accustomed to general railings against inflation, the politicians are not accustomed to the focused consumer demand to act specifically and quickly. It must be a refreshing new experience for some of them. Lesson three is that consumers are learning that if business is misusing Washington, they have got to start using Washington.
Fourth, the meat boycott has been an important learning process for its leaders and adherents. The techniques of organizing, motivating and communicating strategies of action are not forgotten once experienced. A whole new coup of consumer activists is developing at the grass roots in local communities throughout the nation. In the world of consumers, this is where it counts and where it reverberates to state and national capitol corridors as well as corporate executive suites. These spontaneous meat boycott groups can now grab the opportunity to form themselves into more permanent and wideranging consumer action groups with both fulltime and volunteer workers.
For example, the thousands of families who patronize a large shopping center can fund, with a contribution of a few dollars per family per year, their own fulltimes advocates to represent their specific complaints as well as their longer range interests toward the stores and their suppliers in that shopping area. Helped by volunteers these advocates‑-such as lawyers or economists–would save consumers many times their annual dues and work for a greater bargaining power for consumers nationally.
In addition, during these few weeks of the great American meat uprising, consumers be‑ came more conscious of how to buy more astutely. They learned more about the different sources of protein, apart from red meat, the way to obtain the cheaper cuts of meat without sacrificing nutrition and other buying advice on the preparation of meals.
Lesson four is that a few hours of thinking and action by consumers can pay economic, political and psychological dividends. These same consumers spend hundreds of hours work‑ing to earn so that they can spend. A little time and energy on the consumer side will make the value from the labor side go a longer way.