CSPI Turns 40 in February!

Menu Labeling, FDA Reform, and School Foods Victories Cap Year 39 for the Group Sometimes Known as the "Food Police"

February 3, 2011

WASHINGTON—It was 40 years ago this month that three young scientists who met in Washington decided to create an organization run by people with scientific training to improve public policies and to encourage other Ph.D. scientists to use their training for the public good. And so, in humble, borrowed office space in 1971 the Center for Science in the Public Interest was born. Working at first on trailblazing issues such as asbestos and lead, CSPI soon came to focus on the nutrition, food safety, and health work for which it is known today.

CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson recalls the early days of the organization in his column in CSPI’s flagship publication, Nutrition Action Healthletter.

“If we had considered the matter carefully, we might have realized that we had no experience running an organization, no money, no connections, and almost no chance of success,” Jacobson wrote. “From that inauspicious beginning, CSPI has grown into an organization that is greatly respected (even by the government officials and politicians we sometimes criticize and by the executives at companies we sometimes sue), widely quoted in the media, and impressively effective.”

Besides Jacobson, CSPI’s cofounders included chemist Albert Fritsch and James Sullivan, an oceanographer who remains on CSPI’s board of directors. CSPI is perhaps best known for its headline-grabbing exposés of the nutritional quality of restaurant meals—it famously called Fettuccini Alfredo a “heart attack on a plate” in 1994—and for spearheading support for the law requiring Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods. It also waged successful efforts to define organic standards for foods; require allergens to be disclosed on all food labels; and reduce the amounts of partially hydrogenated oil, olestra, sulfites, nitrites, and salt used in the food supply.

In CSPI’s 39th year, the organization played a major role in three major legislative achievements. The Child Nutrition Reauthorization signed by President Obama in December requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set nutrition standards for the foods sold in vending machines, a la carte lines, and elsewhere in schools. That’s a historic development that will get junk food out of school hallways once and for all—something CSPI has advocated for decades. Similarly, in the culmination of a decade-long fight to prevent foodborne illnesses, CSPI campaigned for the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. That law requires food manufacturers to have hazard control plans and requires the FDA to inspect food processing facilities more frequently. And an important health-promotion measure in the new health reform law requires chain restaurants to disclose the calorie content of every item on menus and menu boards.

Though he’s thrilled with those public health victories, Jacobson sees much more to be done. Next month, for instance, CSPI plans to launch a major, nationwide initiative to engage Americans in transforming the food environment for the better.

“Still, hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year due to a diet that promotes obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers,” Jacobson said. “There’s a pressing need to expand the grassroots movement for healthy, affordable food produced in a humane, sustainable way.”

Elsewhere in the current issue of Nutrition Action, longtime CSPI nutrition director Bonnie Liebman looks back at some of the surprising nutritional findings of the last 40 years. (For instance, not only does coffee not contribute to pancreatic cancer, as once feared, it now seems likely that drinking coffee reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes—though too much caffeine can cause other problems.) And, CSPI senior scientist David Schardt looks at other major changes in the food environment in the last 40 years—from microwave ovens to the rise of organic foods to the fall of artificial trans fat.

“Back in the ’70s, foods like tofu, whole wheat bread, and brown rice were hard to come by,” Schardt writes. “We cooked more and snacked less. We ate less and weighed less.”

Nutrition Action Healthletter, first published in 1974, has 850,000 subscribers, including 100,000 subscribers to a separate Canadian edition. Besides publishing CSPI’s famous restaurant studies, Nutrition Action highlights on its popular back page various supermarket foods as either Right Stuffs or Food Porns. Oprah Winfrey called Nutrition Action “the mastermind critic that sounded the food alarms.” Nutrition Action is, as always, advertising-free and CSPI does not accept any corporate donations or government grants—so consumers can have confidence that the group’s advice is based on sound science and not on special interests.


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