CSPI Celebrates 50 Years as America’s Food and Health Watchdog
The Group Begins its Next 50 Years with Dramatic Expansion
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is celebrating 50 years as America’s food and health watchdog in 2021. The nonprofit organization, best known for educating Americans about the nutritional contents of packaged foods and restaurant meals, is marking the milestone with a dramatic expansion of its efforts to improve the way America eats and advocating for science-based policies to help Americans recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout 2020, CSPI leveraged its scientific and regulatory expertise by advocating for science-based approaches to diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19. During the pandemic, the group advocated for protections for food chain workers and blew the whistle on hydroxychloroquine, colloidal silver, and other fake coronavirus cures. And CSPI lobbied aggressively to ensure that COVID-19 stimulus packages included funding for hard-hit school meal programs, Pandemic-EBT benefits for groceries for families who miss out on school meals, and increased benefits from and access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"While much of the past four years has been devoted to protecting progress on nutrition, food safety, and health...the time for playing defense is over." — CSPI president Dr. Peter Lurie
Peter G. Lurie, a physician and former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner, became president of CSPI in 2017.
“Since its early days, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has sought to educate the public, push for sound, science-based public policies, and expose deception and unfair practices by the food industry,” Lurie said. “While much of the past four years has been devoted to protecting the progress on nutrition, food safety, and health achieved during the Obama administration and joining the national fight against COVID-19, the time for playing defense is over. And CSPI is ready to take maximum advantage of the opportunities presented by the new administration to push for new progress.”
In 2019, CSPI and its legal partners at Democracy Forward sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its rule watering down requirements that school meals reduce sodium and increase whole grains. In 2020, a federal judge tossed out the rule because the administration failed to give adequate public notice of its intent to gut the standards.
CSPI has been campaigning to reduce sodium levels in packaged and restaurant food since the 1970s. In response to a petition from the group, the FDA has been drafting voluntary sodium reduction targets for different categories of foods. The initial two-year targets have not been finalized—something that CSPI says the next commissioner of the agency should prioritize.
In 2020, Bloomberg Philanthropies partnered with CSPI to accelerate efforts to support healthy eating for low-income families and to counter the aggressive marketing of soda and other junk foods. A generous grant is expanding CSPI’s advocacy at the national, state, and local levels, and across the entire food environment, with new campaigns for policies that improve the food environment at grocery stores, restaurants, and schools.
Thanks in part to the grant, CSPI helped advocates in Berkeley, CA, score a major victory in September with the passage of the nation’s first healthy checkout policy, which requires grocery stores to offer healthier foods and beverages in the checkout aisle. In November, CSPI mobilized activists in Prince George’s County, MD, which passed the most comprehensive legislation yet to improve restaurant kids’ meals. CSPI’s campaign to improve kids’ meals at restaurants had earlier prompted McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and other chains to offer water, milk, or other healthier drinks with kids’ meals as opposed to soda.
In April, CSPI will convene a virtual summit of policymakers, advocates, scientists, and lawyers to help spur progress on policies aimed at reducing sugary drink consumption—policies that include taxes, warning labels, and further curbs on the ubiquity of the nutritionally poor products.
The First 50 Years
Founded in 1971 by microbiologist Michael F. Jacobson and two other scientists, James Sullivan and Albert Fritsch, CSPI quickly carved out a niche as America’s leading food safety and nutrition advocacy organization, campaigning for early reforms such as the elimination of sulfite preservatives on fresh foods.
In the 1990s, CSPI led the fight for passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which made now-iconic Nutrition Facts labels mandatory on packaged foods. And in a series of famous studies published in its Nutrition Action Healthletter, the group exposed for the first time the caloric content of movie theater popcorn, fettuccine alfredo, and restaurant items like Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion.
CSPI also led a long campaign to label, and eventually eliminate, the artificial trans fat found in partially hydrogenated oils. CSPI worked with New York City and other jurisdictions to eliminate artificial trans fat from restaurant food, and its litigators helped prompt KFC to eliminate partially hydrogenated oil from deep fryers. In 2015, acting on a petition filed by CSPI, the FDA made a final determination that partially hydrogenated oil was no longer “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. Today, these industrially produced trans fats are no longer in the food supply.
In the wake of outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens connected to peanut butter, spinach, and other foods in the late 2000s, CSPI was the lead consumer voice spearheading the passage of the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011.
During the Obama administration, CSPI also worked closely with the White House and Congress to enact the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which dramatically improved the nutritional quality of school meals and removed sugary soda and other junk food from schools. One of CSPI’s signature policy achievements—calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus and menu boards—became law as part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
“They took on the food giants—and won,” wrote New York Times personal health columnist Jane Brody in a 2018 appreciation of CSPI and Jacobson.
From 50 to the Future
In 2020 CSPI’s board of directors adopted a new vision statement for the organization: “CSPI envisions a healthy population with reduced impact and burden of preventable diseases and an equitable food system that makes healthy, sustainable food accessible to all.”
“The Trump administration is, at long last, receding into history, and as we vaccinate our population, restore the role of science and scientists in government, and follow public health recommendations on masks and other measures, the pandemic it failed to prevent or reverse will recede as well,” Lurie said. “Today, CSPI is poised to do more than ever before to help Americans eat well, stay well, and emerge from the pandemic with greater resilience, improved food security, and renewed hope for the future.”
CSPI envisions a healthy population with reduced impact and burden of preventable diseases and an equitable food system that makes healthy, sustainable food accessible to all.
In January Dr. David A. Kessler, the former FDA Commissioner, resigned as chair of CSPI’s board to join the Biden administration as Chief Science Officer for the federal government’s response to COVID-19. Development consultant Robin Caiola will serve as chair, and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter will serve as vice chair, of the CSPI board of directors in 2021.
CSPI is largely funded by subscriptions to its Nutrition Action Healthletter, member contributions, and foundation grants; CSPI accepts no corporate or government donations and Nutrition Action accepts no advertising.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Richard Adcock (radcock[at]cspinet.org).