He looks more like a tenured professor than a zealous consumer advocate. He is soft spoken with round wire glasses and a navy sports coat, a warm smile and gray curly hair. He is Michael Jacobson, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and at first glance it looks like he’s more likely to serve up a warm cup of tea than a lawsuit.
But Jacobson is a force to be reckoned with. Since founding the organization in 1971, he’s been a self-pronounced “food detective,” uncovering everything from trans fats, high calorie counts, and excessive sodium levels in America’s food supply. At times his crusade has even led him to the courtroom, bringing lawsuits against chains including Denny’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and KFC, and brands like Red Bull, Vitaminwater, and Sara Lee.
While critics have called the CSPI the “joyless eating club” and insist Jacobson’s work is based on “junk science,” major chains realize that, for better or worse, Jacobson is an industry agenda-setter. QSR visited the CSPI offices in Washington, D.C., to learn what Jacobson has in his crosshairs for 2010.
The CSPI has a unique way of dealing with the industry—you sue brands. Is that really helping anyone? We sued Denny’s a few months ago, not for being a unique culprit but more representative of large chains that serve large meals, and there was a lot of competition to be the defendant. Companies didn’t know that.
Lawsuits are so costly and time-consuming. We really made a strong effort to come to a settlement with Denny’s and first we asked for 30 percent reduction [in sodium]. Then we offered a combination reduction between sodium and trans fat. They wouldn’t do that. Then we suggested things like having a “high in sodium” label next to items that had more than 3,000 milligrams of sodium. And we suggested sodium labeling for each item on the menu, and they just wouldn’t agree to anything.
They ignored you? They did make some changes. They’ve lowered sodium in several of their products. They’ve made some improvements probably due to the threat of litigation, but we couldn’t get a formal agreement out of them. So after a year and a half we filed a lawsuit. This kind of a lawsuit is at the frontier of consumer law.
If the government gets strongly involved in sodium reduction, then there will be less of a need. And then we could see some broad progress.
Why target salt? Most people are blissfully unaware that high sodium levels in their foods are a major problem in regards to their health. High sodium diets promote high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes. And there’s been so little publicity in the U.S. about this problem, it’s no surprise that the public isn’t aware of it. But big companies are well aware that high-sodium diets are a major problem because the British government has been beating them up on them for five years. They’re lowering sodium levels in Britain and they need to do the same in the U.S.