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Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a Washington, D.C.marker-based non-profit watchdog and consumer advocacy group.

History and funding

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 two fellow scientists from Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

CSPI has 501 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 5-10 percent of its $17 million annual budget from grants by private foundations.

Programs and campaigns

Nutrition and food labeling

CSPI has advocated for more accurately defined 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. Most recently, CSPI has focused on nutrition labeling at chain restaurants and has helped introduce menu labeling legislation in several U.S. cities and states. Its guidelines include detailed nutrition labeling, a prohibition on trans fats additives, and reducing the amount of sodium in processed foods.

In 1989, CSPI was instrumental in convincing fast-food restaurants to stop using animal fat for frying.

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.

Food Safety Initiative

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 Agriculturemarker (USDA) into a single agency.

Alcohol Policies Project

The group's "Alcohol Policies Project" advocates against what it considers adverse societal influences of alcohol, such as marketing campaigns that target young drinkers., and promotes turning self-imposed advertising bans by alcohol industry groups into law. The project is 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 is 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.


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 who have been the most directly affected.

One example is CSPI's contention, from the mid-1990s onward, that trans fats pose a public health danger. Three trade groups — the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers, and the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils — in response "said the evidence was contradictory and inconclusive, and accused [CSPI] of jumping to a premature conclusion." Nevertheless, the risks of trans fats are now generally recognized. A Wall Street Journal editorial acknowledged the risks, but argued that CSPI itself was partly to blame for creating the problem. In its 1980s campaign against saturated fats (at a time when even CSPI itself maintained that trans fats were relatively benign), CSPI had persuaded many restaurants, such as McDonald's, to introduce trans fats in the first place.

Stronger critics — such as the restaurant, food, and tobacco industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom— derisively refer to CSPI as "the Food Police," and suggest their 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." In a Washington Times editoral, former U.S. Representative Bob Barr (Republican from Georgiamarker) also pointed to individual responsibility for dietary choices and accused CSPI of pursuing "a pre-existing political agenda."

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."



  • Center for Science in the Public Interest. Project to Empower Students to Transform the Campus Drinking Culture: Survival Skills for the Successful Advocate. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest, n.d.
  • Goetz, D. Liquor industry gets stricter on advertising. Louisville Courier-Journal, 10.09.03

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