The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit political activist group campaigning to ban food products, regulate food producers and impact the public’s eating habits. To forward its goals, CSPI publishes newsletters and consumer advocacy alerts to promote “safer and healthier foods.” CSPI considers itself a resource for structuring food habits, providing guidance at restaurants and discouraging unhealthy consumption choices.
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CSPI is effective in its in its nine most frequently used lobbying and pressure categories, which reveal how the group targets its campaigns. CPSI’s power is concentrated in
CSPI’s influence over grassroots comes largely from its publications, which elucidate the editorial standpoint of the group’s executives and key staff. CSPI’s publications generally ideological and highly personal, prompting the group’s nickname, the “food police.”
CSPI was founded by Michael F. Jacobson, who earned his PhD in microbiology. Jacobson worked previously with Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law, where he trained in offensive legal strategy and the use of expert testimony. Jacobsen departed Nader in 1971 to form CSPI with two other close friends of Nader, James Sullivan and Albert Frisch.
Sullivan and Fritsch departed CSPI in 1997, and the organization restructured to focus exclusively on food issues. Jacobson served as executive director and set CSPI’s direction. In the 1980s, Jacobson led CSPI to focus on cooking oils, launching a national pressure campaign on fast food giants to switch to trans fats and away from traditional cooking methods. In the 1990’s CSPI reversed its position, campaigning to end reliance on trans fats. Most recently, Jacobson and CSPI have focused their efforts on salt, releasing a number of reports on salt’s negative health impact, most recently in 2013 (Year End Report 2013). Jacobson’s so-called “war on salt,” however, has met with criticism from the scientific community, including from the US Centers for Disease Control and Scientific American.
Nutrition and Food Labeling
CSPI pushes “clearer nutrition and food labeling” through lobbying, litigation and public relations campaigns. CSPI’s campaigns have targeted everyone from the movie popcorn industry (for it’s use of “high saturated fat”), to US ice cream retailers who failed to list the calorie and saturated fat content of their products on menu boards.
CSPI has also focused on infant feeding, creating a “White Paper on Infant Feeding Practices” denouncing the baby food industry’s products and advertising and urging mothers to feeding their babies based on CDPI’s opinion that solid foods should not be introduced early in an infant’s diet.
In 1989, CSPI was instrumental in convincing fast-food restaurants to stop using animal fat for frying in favor of artificial “trans fats”. They would later campaign against the use of trans fats.
In 1998, CSPI published Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans’ Health. It selected frightening statistics on soft drinks causing children’s tooth decay, nutritional depletion, obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease. CSPI advocated for taxing soft drinks in order to prevent or diminish their consumption.
Since the 1970s, CSPI has been involved in school lunch programs. Most notably, in the 2000s, CSPI began a pressure campaign urging school districts and states to pass policies stopping the sale of soda and other snack foods in school cafeterias. In 2004, CSPI created a coalition called the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA) to lobby Congress specifically on the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, urging lawmakers to force school districts to “develop a nutrition and physical activity wellness policy by 2006.”
Recently, in 2010, CSPI and NANA lobbied to pass the “Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act,” which gave the US Department of Agriculture greater control over school nutrition standards, as well as control over whether schools could sell snacks and beverages through vending machines and at school events.
One of CSPI’s top goals has been to change consumer habits by encouraging lawmakers to mandate that restaurants list calorie counts on menus and menu boards. CSPI believes that such displays will lead consumers to make choices more in line with CSPI’s recommendations.
In 2010, CSPI lobbied for a provision, eventually passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, that required calorie labeling on menus at chain restaurants and retail food establishments.
Food Safety Initiative
One of CSPI’s largest projects is its Food Safety Initiative, directed to reduce food contamination and foodborne illness. As part of its publishing repertoire, CSPI releases Outbreak Alert, a compilation of food-borne illnesses and outbreaks that can often come across as hyperbolic. CSPI also supports the creation of a “super agency,” which would bridge the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture to create a Food Safety Administration charged with overseeing and regulating restaurants for the prevention of food-borne illness.
Skepticism for CSPI’s “War on Salt”
CSPI has been instrumental in pressuring state and local authorities to institute regulations on salt intake, and the amount of salt allowed in consumer food products. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), however, reviewed the health benefits of reducing salt intake and the take-home message is that salt, in the quantities consumed by most Americans, is no longer considered a substantial health hazard. Explicitly, the CDC reported that there is no benefit, and there may be a danger, from reducing our salt intake below 1 tsp per day.
This review by the National Academies Institute of Medicine (IOM), commissioned by CDC, considered dozens of studies, from cross-cultural (less reliable) to prospective, randomized with control (most reliable). Most studies showed no relationship between salt intake and any health outcome. Some seemed to indicate that more salt had a beneficial effect.
Concerns of Over-Regulation for the Food Industry
Capital Research analysts wrote, “It is not enough for them to try to convince the rest of us to renounce the “sinful” acts of devouring a bacon-cheeseburger or drinking a beer while reclining on a couch and enjoying a football game. No, the neo-prohibitionists are not satisfied with saying their piece in the marketplace of ideas. They reach for that ever-ready cudgel of the censorious scoundrel: the coercive power of the state.”
Concerns of Inappropriate Political Influence on Scientific Research
Robert Shoffner of Washingtonian magazine noted, “There’s a political point of view here, an economic view based on the idea that people are children and have to be protected by Big Brother or Big Nanny from the awful free-market predators. … That’s what drives these people: a desire for control of other people’s lives.”
Connection to Failed Obesity Lawsuits
CPSI ally, Georgetown University Law Center Professor and obesity trial lawyer John F. Banzhaf III has made his reputation by attacking fast-food, its suppliers and retailers. According to Activist Facts, in 2002, “Banzhaf served as an adviser to a lawsuit filed by New York attorney Samuel Hirsch on behalf of Caesar Barber — a morbidly obese man whose health suffered because of his poor diet and lack of exercise. Barber’s suit claimed McDonald’s was to blame because he ate too much.
“After the Barber suit was laughed out of the court of public opinion, Hirsch and Banzhaf went back to the drawing board for their second multi-billion-dollar fishing expedition. This one used children as the bait. The trial judge dismissed the case, writing: “If a person knows or should know that eating copious orders of super-sized McDonald’s products is unhealthy and may result in weight gain, it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses.” Banzhaf has lost every obesity-related case he’s been involved in.”
Personal Influence on Organizational Goals
The personal quirks of executive director Michael Jacobson have far too much influence on the group’s public message, prompting critics to nickname CSPI the Center for Science in Michael’s Private Interest. For example, a staff story recounts Jacobson’s private view that caffeine is such a blight on civilization that he complains about people socializing over coffee. Instead, he wants Americans to patronize a “carrot juice house.” CSPI’s staff food rules are so strict that Jacobson once tried to get rid of the office coffee machine—until one-third of his 60 employees threatened to quit, according to Activist Facts.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote of Jacobson, “Like some evangelical Jack Spratt, [CSPI co-founder] Michael F. Jacobson seems to have made it his mission in life to warn society of the dangers of eating—and becoming—fat. The success of this apparently well-intentioned crusade may be giving rise to other, less obvious dangers to our collective health—those of desensitization, oversimplification and omission.”.