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CSPI is a consumer advocacy organization. Its focus is nutrition and health, food safety, and alcohol policy. CSPI is headed by Michael F. Jacobson, who founded the group in 1971 along with James Sullivan and Albert Fritsch, two fellow scientists from Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law. In the early days, CSPI focused on various aspects such as nutrition, environmental issues, and nuclear energy. However, after the 1977 departure of Fritsch and Sullivan, CSPI began to focus exclusively on nutrition and food safety.
CSPI has 501(c)(3) status. Its chief source of income is its Nutrition Action Health Letter, which has about 900,000 subscribers and does not accept corporate advertising. The organization receives about 5 to 10 percent of its $17 million annual budget from grants by private foundations.
CSPI advocates for clearer nutrition and food labeling. For example, labeling of "low-fat" or "heart healthy" foods in restaurants must now meet specific requirements established by the Food and Drug Administration as of May 2, 1997. In 1994, the group first brought the issue of high saturated fat in movie popcorn to the public attention. In 2003, it worked with lawyer John F. Banzhaf III to pressure ice cream retailers to display nutritional information about their products.
In 1989, CSPI was instrumental in convincing fast-food restaurants to stop using animal fat for frying. They would later campaign against the use of trans fats.
In 1998, the Center published a report entitled Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans' Health. It examined statistics relating to the soaring consumption of soft drinks, particularly by children, and the consequent health ramifications including tooth decay, nutritional depletion, obesity, type-2 (formerly known as "adult-onset") diabetes, and heart disease. It also reviewed soft drink marketing and made various recommendations aimed at reducing soft drink consumption, in schools and elsewhere. A second, updated edition of the report was published in 2005. Among the actions they advocate taxing soft drinks.
CSPI has worked since the 1970s to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, and remove soda and unhealthy foods from school vending machines, snack bars, and a la carte lines. Despite pushback from the soda and snack food industries, CSPI successfully worked with a number of local school districts and states to pass policies in the early 2000s to restrict the sale of soda and other unhealthy snack foods in schools. In 2004, CSPI worked with members of the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA) (a CSPI-led coalition) to include a provision in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 to ensure all local school districts develop a nutrition and physical activity wellness policy by 2006.
In 2010, CSPI and NANA led the successful effort to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a landmark law to improve child nutrition programs. The law (enacted 12/13/10) authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update the nutrition standards for snacks and beverages sold in schools through vending machines, a la carte lines, school stores, fundraisers, and other school venues. CSPI worked with NANA to mobilize support for the updated nutrition standards and urge the USDA to adopt strong final school nutrition standards (released in June 2013). Despite opposition from some members of Congress and the potato and pizza industries (which lobbied for unlimited french fries and pizza as a vegetable in school meals) CSPI and NANA’s efforts also resulted in strong nutrition standards for school lunches.
One of CSPI’s top goals has been to ensure that consumers have reliable information about what they eat and drink. Since the early 2000s, CSPI has worked with policymakers and advocates in Philadelphia, New York City, California, and numerous other jurisdictions to pass laws to list calories on menus and menu boards. In addition to making calorie information available to consumers, a key benefit of menu labeling has been the reformulation of existing food items and the introduction of nutritionally improved items in many chain restaurants.
In 2010, CSPI successfully lobbied for a provision, which was passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, to require calorie labeling on menus at chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments nationwide. The Food and Drug Administration proposed regulations for menu labeling in 2011, and CSPI has since worked to continue to mobilize support for national menu labeling, diffuse opposition from Congress and special interests, and encourage the FDA to strengthen the final regulations and release them in a timely manner. Menu labeling is expected to be implemented nationally in 2014.
In 2011, CSPI initiated a new project, Food Day, which is a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food and a grassroots campaign for better food policies. It builds all year long and culminates on October 24.
Food Day aims to help people "Eat Real," which the project defines as cutting back on sugar drinks, overly salted packaged foods, and fatty, factory-farmed meats in favor of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and sustainably raised protein. This annual event involves some of the country’s most prominent food activists, united by a vision of food that is healthy, affordable, and produced with care for the environment, farm animals, and the people who grow, harvest, and serve it.
Across the country, 3,200 events took place in 2012 and 2,300 in 2011, from community festivals in Denver, Savannah, and New York City, to a national conference in Washington, DC, to thousands of school activities in Portland, Minneapolis, and elsewhere.
One of CSPI's largest projects is its Food Safety Initiative, directed to reduce food contamination and foodborne illness. In addition to publishing Outbreak Alert!, a compilation of food-borne illnesses and outbreaks, the project supports the establishment of a new Food Safety Administration that would combine the food safety functions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Agriculture (USDA) into a single agency.
A growing number of states and localities are working to improve the foods and beverages available in public places, such as parks, recreational facilities, community centers, highway rest stops, agencies buildings, childcare facilities, state hospitals, state universities, and correctional facilities. CSPI is working to support those efforts to offer healthier options through vending machines, cafeterias, concessions stands, institutional feeding, meetings, and events.
CSPI has been working with other members of the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA) to ensure that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has adequate resources to address nutrition, physical activity, and obesity. In recent years, funding for CDC’s obesity prevention programs has flat lined, despite obesity continuing to be a top public health threat in the country. In fiscal year 2013, Congress provided CDC with $41 million for the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO); that is a mere 0.67% of total CDC funding and 4% of CDC’s chronic disease budget.
The group's "Alcohol Policies Project," now discontinued, advocated against what it considers adverse societal influences of alcohol, such as marketing campaigns that target young drinkers, and promoted turning self-imposed advertising bans by alcohol industry groups into law. The project was run by long-time director George Hacker, a lawyer who also co-directs the Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems.
One of the main activities of the project was the "Campaign for Alcohol-Free Sports TV". Launched in 2003 with support of at least 80 other local and national groups, the campaign asked schools to pledge to prohibit alcohol advertising on local sports programming and to work toward eliminating alcohol advertising from televised college sports programs. It also sought Congressional support for such a prohibition.
In addition, CSPI has pressured alcoholic beverage companies with lawsuits. In one such lawsuit, filed in September 2008, the Center "sue[d] MillerCoors Brewing Company over its malt beverage Sparks, arguing that the caffeine and guarana in the drink are additives that have not been approved by the FDA," and that the combination of those ingredients with alcohol resulted in "more drunk driving, more injuries, and more sexual assaults."
In the early 1990s, CSPI designed a social marketing campaign to encourage adults and children (over age two) to switch from high-fat (whole and 2%) milk to low-fat (1% and fat-free) milk to reduce their intake of saturated fat and lower their risk of heart disease. The 1% or Less campaign used paid advertising, public relations, and community-based programs. The campaign was effective in communities nationwide, doubling low-fat milk sales data over the course of the eight-week pilot campaign.
CSPI's public policy recommendations, and sometimes the organization's motivation for making them, have been challenged by various parties, particularly those within the food industry that have been the most directly affected.
One example surrounds the organization's reversal of position on the question of trans fats during the 1980 and 1990s. During the 1980s, CSPI's campaign "Saturated Fat Attack" advocated the replacement of beef tallow, palm oil and coconut oil at fast food restaurants, while maintaining that trans fats were comparatively benign. In a 1986 pamphlet entitled "The Fast-Food Guide", it praised chains such as KFC that had converted to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are lower in saturated fat but high in trans fat. As a result of this pressure, many restaurants such as McDonald's made the switch. From the mid-1990s onward, however, CSPI identified trans fats as the greater public health danger. CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson went on record saying, "Twenty years ago, scientists (including me) thought trans [fat] was innocuous. Since then, we've learned otherwise."
In response, three trade groups – the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers and the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils — "said the evidence [on trans fat] was contradictory and inconclusive, and accused [CSPI] of jumping to a premature conclusion." Numerous studies and public health agencies have since supported the view that trans fats carry health risks. A Wall Street Journal editorial acknowledged the risks, but argued, on the basis of its previous actions, that CSPI itself was to blame for creating the problem.
Other critics—such as the restaurant, food, and tobacco industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom—refer to CSPI as "the Food Police," and suggest its focus on food manufacturers and retailers distracts from "real culprits ... a lack of exercise and people's unwillingness to take personal responsibility for their own diets." Former U.S. Representative Bob Barr (a libertarian-leaning Republican) accused CSPI of pursuing "a pre-existing political agenda" and pointed to individual responsibility for dietary choices. Cato Institute (a Washington D.C.-based libertarian think tank) scholar Walter Olson wrote that the group's "longtime shtick is to complain that businesses like McDonald’s, rather than our own choices, are to blame for rising obesity," and called CSPI's suit against McDonald's on behalf of a California mother a "new low in responsible parenting".
In 2002, food industry lobbyist Rick Berman, who is also the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, announced a series of print and radio ads designed in part to drive traffic to the CCF website. A San Francisco Chronicle article identified CSPI as "one of two groups singled out [by the CCF] for full-on attack," and said, "What's not mentioned on the [CCF] Web site is that it's one of a cluster of such nonprofits started... by Berman."
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