Networks Serve as Deputy for Food Police

     “We’ll look at who’s to blame for the stuff you put in your body.”


     That’s not an exaggeration of the media’s view of the “food police’s” efforts to regulate American food. That’s how CNN’s Jennifer Westhoven plugged an upcoming story about an anti-Kentucky Fried Chicken lawsuit on the June 17 “In the Money.”


     By airing numerous stories on the anti-food-industry antics of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the media lend credence to the idea that restaurants and the government are responsible for what you eat. Whether it’s Starbucks frappuccinos or crispy chicken, CSPI peddles the notion that the food devils are making you do it – and the networks eat it up.


     In fact, the mainstream media have embraced the “food police” agenda so wholeheartedly that some unabashedly heap praise on CSPI’s efforts.


     Perhaps the most blatant example was the May 3 “Early Show” on CBS. Co-host Julie Chen welcomed CSPI founder and director Michael Jacobson with accolades for his work getting non-diet sodas out of public schools. “Congratulations,” Chen said. “I know you’ve been working on this deal for a very long time.”


     Chen added that “this is definitely a step in the right direction.” Later, she gushed: “Mr. Jacobson, it’s definitely one bold step. So congratulations on that.” Jacobson replied: “It’s a great move forward, yes.” Chen: “It sure is.”


     In the past six months, from January 10 to July 10, CSPI netted more stories on network news than the nation’s official nutrition watchdog, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) when it came to regular food issues such as obesity, nutrition and organic products (not counting bird flu and mad cow disease). CSPI appeared 14 times on ABC, CBS and NBC news shows. USDA appeared only 10 times.


     On its Web site, CSPI describes itself as “a consumer advocacy organization whose twin missions are to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being.” However, it goes far beyond conducting research and providing information with its threatening lawsuits and aggressive lobbying for more government regulations.


     But on the networks and CNN in the past six months, CSPI was most often labeled a “consumer group” (6 times), as well as a “nonprofit group,” “consumer health group” and “health advocacy group.”


     ABC’s Elisabeth Leamy referred to the group twice as “achieving change” by suing members of the restaurant industry.


     “By law, all packaged foods now have to contain nutrition information, but the FDA just doesn’t have the authority to force restaurants to do the same,” Leamy said on the June 19  “Good Morning America.” “So, CSPI is hoping to shame them into it. Lately, the group has been achieving change by taking restaurants to court.”


     One of CSPI’s recent efforts has been fighting trans fats in Kentucky Fried Chicken’s foods. But Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman did some digging about CSPI and showed how its own words now strike an ironic chord.


     In his June 18 column, Chapman related: “Back in 1988, when CSPI was demanding that McDonald’s stop using beef tallow to cook French fries, it dismissed worries about trans-fat-laden hydrogenated cooking oil.”


     He then quoted CSPI’s ’80s-era logic, as they explained it then: “All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.”


     The New York Times reported on June 14 that “trans fats became a part of fast-food meals in the 1980s, after consumer groups demanded that the chains stop frying in beef tallow and palm oils because those products are highly saturated.” However, it did not name CSPI as one of those “consumer groups.”


     Some CNN reporters, even while giving CSPI continued exposure, did ask some personal-responsibility questions.


     On the June 17 “In the Money,” Andy Serwer played responsibility advocate, saying “Can’t people just simply decide what to eat and what not to eat and not go out and sue fast food companies?” Managing Editor Allen Wastler added: “And suits like this are actually trying to regulate, through litigation – which seems to me an odd way to go about it if your issue is with the FDA, take it to the FDA. It’s my choice to go to the KFC and have the meal.”


     Back in January, CNN’s “Showbiz Tonight” took on the idea of advertising sugary foods on TV. Co-host A.J. Hammer asked CSPI’s Jacobson on the January 19 show: “Well, Mike, that brings up the point that usually comes up when these sort of cases come up. Isn’t it the parents’ responsibility to monitor what their kids are reading and watching? And after all, it’s not the kids who are slapping down the credit cards at the supermarkets. They may be tugging on the shirts of the parents, but, you know, is that worth a lawsuit?”


     Hammer actually got Jacobson to admit that “yes, parents bear the ultimate responsibility.”

For more information:


Dr. Elizabeth Whelan (American Council on Science and Health): “Take Food Cops’ Advice with a Grain of Salt – Until That’s Banned, Too”


Center for Consumer Freedom/ info about CSPI


“Extra-crispy chicken and deep-fried panic” by Steve Chapman


Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) home page