The 'Consumer Group' That Doesn't Want You to Consume

     If it wouldn’t cause death, the Center for Science in the Public Interest would probably try to ban eating and drinking altogether.

     Despite the extreme positions of the left-wing group, the media continue to swallow its rhetoric.

     “Well, good, they should put the numbers on the menu too,” an unsatisfied Soledad O’Brien said after a February 26 CNN “American Morning” segment featured CSPI’s attack on casual dining restaurants Ruby Tuesday and UNO Chicago Grill to mandate menu labeling.

     Since the start of the year, CSPI experts have complained on broadcast or in print news about Chinese food, casual dining, wholesale produce markets, caffeine, kids’ cafeteria food, a new Coke product called Enviga, advertising to children, wine, and trans fats.

     In February 2007 alone, CSPI was mentioned 27 times by the three major networks or in The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post or Los Angeles Times.

     Journalists frequently spewed CSPI’s anti-food industry opinions without qualifiers or emphasis on personal choices, portraying the group as a “consumer” protection service.

     “[A] new study says that if you’re out for Chinese, even the good stuff could be bad for you,” said ABC’s Terry Moran on “Nightline” March 21.

     “Nightline” reporter Jessica Yellin pushed CSPI’s agenda throughout the broadcast and only included one opposing view from restaurant owner Larry La. But Yellin chose not to emphasize La’s point that Chinese food can be ordered low-fat or low-sodium. Instead she ended her story with, “fortune cookies, not bad for you. So, skip the meal. Eat the cookie.”

     ABC’s Nancy Cordes agreed with CSPI about mandatory restaurant labeling, warning viewers of the February 26 “World News with Charles Gibson” that “a menu can be a minefield.” The only defense of the restaurant industry included in Cordes’ segment was one sentence from UNO Chicago Grill’s CEO Frank Guidara.

     “World News” did not include the perspective of the National Restaurant Association, which found “95 percent of survey respondents feel they are qualified to make their own dietary choices.”

Media Serve Up A Lot of CSPI

     Broadcast and print journalists are fond of mentioning CSPI in reports. A Nexis search for the organization turned up 15 mentions in the month of February for The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. A search of all ABC, CBS and NBC news shows resulted in 12 stories during the same time period.

     Many of those segments can be traced back to CSPI press releases and studies, including the March 21 release “Wok Carefully: CSPI Takes a (Second) Look at Chinese Restaurant Food”; the February 26 “X-treme Eating” release about calorie content in casual chain restaurants; and the February 20 release urging soft drink makers to disclose caffeine content.

     CNN’s “American Morning” and ABC’s “Nightline” both reported on March 21 the CSPI release from the same day.

     CSPI’s “X-treme Eating” report turned into some extreme reporting on February 26, when ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson,” CBS “Evening News” and CNN’s “American Morning” all gobbled up that press release.

Regulate Your Way to Better Health

     According to its Web site, CSPI is “a strong advocate for nutrition and health” as well as “food safety” and “alcohol policy.” Its advocacy for “alcohol policy” includes higher taxes on those products.

     It’s not simply a health awareness group but an active advocate of using laws to change behavior, listing under its accomplishments the passage of a number of regulations.

     “CSPI never met a regulation or tax it did not love,” wrote Business & Media Institute adviser Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan. “How to solve the obesity crisis? Tax soda, ban its sale in schools, mandate that restaurants carry detailed nutrition labels on menus, and sue McDonald’s for luring children …”

     Under “Nutrition Policy” on its Web site, CSPI charges that public policies are necessary “Because it takes more than willpower” to make healthy eating decisions.

     CSPI claims restaurant portion sizes hamper people’s ability to eat well. People in many nations are starving while CSPI laments the abundance of food in the United States. To top it off, CSPI even has attacked modern conveniences like remote controls and washing machines for their contributions to Americans’ inactivity. (The thought of hand-scrubbing clothes gives new meaning to “washboard abs.”)

     CSPI also promotes taxes on what it considers “unhealthy” foods in order to subsidize fruits and vegetables.

     Whelan, who is also the president of the American Council on Science and Health, wrote an open letter to CSPI in 1992 pointing out flaws in the group’s methods and claims and a general lack of common sense.

     “There are no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets,” Whelan wrote as a response to CSPI’s “10 Foods You Should NEVER Eat.”

     “The word ‘moderation’ does not seem to be part of this movement’s vocabulary,” concluded Whelan.

Pass (on) the Salt

     One of the longest-running CSPI campaigns – from 1981 to the present day – has been the war against salt. Executive director Michael Jacobson called the use of “excess sodium” by food makers “good for funeral directors and coffin makers, but it is a disaster for shoppers and restaurant patrons” in a 2005 press release.

     CSPI and its experts are called many things by journalists: “consumer advocates,” “consumer group,” “consumer advocacy group,” and even “food safety expert[s].” But these labels make the radical organization sound harmless and even helpful, when really its goal is to take away your bread and butter – literally.

     The extreme nature of the organization is revealed by its campaigns against countless foods in its 36-year history, according to a study by Steven J. Milloy, executive director of the Free Enterprise Education Institute.

·         Fresh produce: In 2005, it warned of increasing Salmonella outbreaks related to produce.

·         Drinking water: In 2000, it warned that water from the tap or bottle can be laced with pesticides, chlorine or lead.

·         Bread: It sought a ban from the FDA on the use of potassium bromate in breads (it improves the texture of dough), alleging that it can cause cancer.

·         Eggs:  “Eggs have become the No. 1 contributor to food poisoning outbreaks,” a CSPI spokesman said in 1997.

     Wine, beer, soda, milk, coffee, sugar, artificial sweeteners, salt, oils and fats, olestra, poultry, meats and cheese have all been CSPI targets at one time or another.

      “[I]t appears that CSPI has spent decades irresponsibly frightening the public about alleged hazards of virtually every section of the food pyramid including: meats and dairy products; fish and seafood; fruits and vegetables; bread and pasta; and fats, oils and sweets,” Milloy wrote in his study.

For more on CSPI:

Take Food Cops’ Advice with a Grain of Salt – Until That’s Banned, Too

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan explains that CSPI, which once campaigned FOR the use of trans fats in restaurant cooking, is now using lawsuits against them.

False Alarm: A Report on the Center for Science in the Public Interest

Steven Milloy looks at CSPI from 1971 to 2006, including 91 food scares the organization has perpetrated.