The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer
advocacy group best known for reviews of Chinese restaurant food and movie
popcorn, has emerged as a major player in global food politics.
Joining with counterparts in the UK and Japan, CSPI enjoys observer status
at Codex Alimentarius meetings. The group also participates in the
Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue and seeks to influence World Trade
Organization negotiations on agriculture policy.
Launched in 1971 by three young scientists, including executive director
Michael Jacobson, CSPI has become a potent force in both domestic and
international food politics. Its far-flung activities are supported by
nearly one million subscribers to its monthly magazine, Nutrition Action
Healthletter. Over the years, the group has been a gadfly and occasional
ally of food companies and regulators. CSPI counts among its successes
passage of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which transformed
U.S. food product labels.
CSPI began looking seriously beyond U.S. borders about six years ago. The
Uruguay Round in 1994 got us started in a major way, because it obligated
the U.S. to consider international concerns in making domestic policy,
Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director, told World Food Chemical News.
The food industry was becoming increasingly globalized as well. We couldnt
do our job effectively if we ignored the impact of globalization on industry
That same year the European Union threatened to challenge U.S. nutrition
labeling requirements under NLEA as a trade barrier. CSPI was galvanized
into defending the law it had helped to pass. We decided wed better take a
closer look at these international agreements, Silverglade recalls.
International aspects of issues considered
CSPI does not have an international affairs department as such. Many of the
groups scientists, lawyers and policy analysts devote some of their time to
global aspects of their issues. I was the only one doing it six years ago,
says Silverglade. Clearly what we need now is not a separate department but
to interweave international considerations into our projects.
As an example of CSPIs approach, Silverglade pointed to a recent petition
asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban certain antibiotics as
animal growth promoters. The petition cited an EU ban on the same animal
drugs. Soon after, CSPI learned that the U.S. Trade Representatives Office
had complained that the EU ban represented a trade barrier.
We followed up by writing [USTR] Charlene Barshefsky, Silverglade said.
We generated a record showing that the EU was scientifically justified, and
we recommended that the USTR coordinate its position with [the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention], which held views similar to the EUs.
CSPI began evaluating functional foods several years ago. Realizing that the
functional food movement was more mature in Japan, the group commissioned a
U.S.-based Japanese graduate student to conduct a research program. CPSI
then issued an international report on functional foods in the U.S., UK and
Japan about a year ago.
CSPI recently learned from a trade publication that Swiss authorities had
found residues of diethylstilbestrol in beef imported from the U.S. FDA had
banned DES use in food animals many years ago, but the U.S. Agriculture
Department had stopped testing for residues in the 1990s.
Working with Swiss authorities and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman,
CSPI persuaded USDA to resume DES testing and launch a criminal
investigation of the exporter. We discovered a domestic problem by
monitoring international developments, commented Silverglade. In brief,
its a small world.
CSPI began taking an interest in Codex in the mid-1990s and asked the UN
Food and Agriculture Organization about participation. We had zero impact
as a member of the U.S. delegation, Silverglade recalls. We researched
ways to participate more directly and effectively.
When FAO expressed reluctance, CSPI pointed out that it has a Canadian
office and thus qualifies for observer status as an international
nongovernmental organization. We went to several meetings as an observer,
then decided to form an international coalition of consumer groups to
increase our effectiveness even further, Silverglade said.
Consumer groups form alliance
CSPI reached out to the Food Commission in the UK and the Japan Offspring
Fund to form the International Association of Food Consumer Organizations,
which was granted Codex observer status in 1997. IAFCO focuses on the Codex
Committee on Food Labeling, the Codex Committee on General Principles, and
full Codex Commission meetings. We plan to expand IAFCO to include more
groups and attend more meetings, Silverglade said.
IAFCO lobbied the Codex Food Labeling Committee and the Executive Committee
to begin work on an international standard for quantitative ingredient
declaration (QUID) on food labels. QUID is in place in the EU, Thailand,
Australia and New Zealand, but it is strongly opposed by the U.S. food
The U.S. doesnt have the strongest label law in the world, Silverglade
complains. The U.S. has no QUID requirement and no freshness dating
requirement. FDA ignored our petition for QUID, but we got approval for new
work [on an international standard] in Codex. The EU, Thailand and other
countries were supportive. The U.S. was the only country that opposed it in
the labeling committee.
CSPI also participates as an observer at Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) meetings, and as an active participant in
the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. Were wary of advisory committees, but
some important things are discussed in the TACD, Silverglade said. CSPI
and the UK Consumers Association co-chair the food working group. We share
information and coordinate strategies, and we have access to government
officials. We can also try to counter the impact of the Transatlantic
Business Dialogue, which is working on dietary supplements and GMOs.
Global system needs to harmonize upward
As part of its global reach, CSPI is working with consumer groups in
Singapore and Australia in their efforts to get mandatory nutrition
labeling. A similar effort is under way in Canada, where CSPI has 130,000
members and an office in Ottawa with a full-time attorney and two full-time
nutritionists based in Toronto.
In both Washington and Ottawa, CSPI is concerned that current negotiations
for a U.S.-Canada seafood equivalency agreement will result in a watering
down (no pun intended) of Canadas superior seafood inspection system (see
WFCN, April 12, Page 18). The U.S. has been known to resort to bullying and
arm-twisting on economic issues, says Silverglade. Weve met with both
governments to urge upward harmonization. Would the U.S. be willing to
improve its program in order to achieve a genuine equivalency agreement?
CSPI seeks to raise international standards throughout the food system.
Were in a global economy to stay, but we have to harmonize upward,
Silverglade insists. Clinton and Gore have at least given lip service to
the concept. It was mentioned in Gores acceptance speech.
Its the only way the American public will support free trade.
Unfortunately, the multinational companies seem to have the ear of
governments. WTO and Codex are used as forums for deregulation. Were trying
to reverse that trend.
CSPI wants the WTO to reconsider the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement, a
position favored by the EU and strongly opposed by the U.S. The EU is frank
about its goals, says Silverglade. They may only want interpretive policy
statements rather than amendments or technical clarifications, but they do
want to modify the SPS Agreement, which provides us with an opportunity to
have our views interjected into the debate.
Silverglade has scheduled meetings with WTO officials in Geneva this month
to get clarification. Is the WTO/SPS working for consumers? he asked.
There are signs the current system is not working well, such as the riots
in Seattle and the trashing of a McDonalds in France.
The root of the problem is that the SPS is a trade agreement, not a food
safety agreement. New problems keep cropping up due to growth in
international food trade. The SPS right now does not address these problems
and does nothing to raise standards. Well keep pushing for a new food
- Steve Clapp
World Food Chemical News
September 13, 2000