Founded in 1971 by microbiologist Michael F. Jacobson and two other scientists, oceonographer James Sullivan and chemist Albert Fritsch, the Center for Science in the Public Interest quickly carved out a niche as America’s leading food safety and nutrition advocacy organization, campaigning for early reforms such as the elimination of sulfite preservatives on fresh foods.
In the 1990s, CSPI led the fight for passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which made now-iconic Nutrition Facts labels mandatory on packaged foods. And in a series of famous studies published in its Nutrition Action Healthletter, the group exposed for the first time the caloric content of movie theater popcorn, fettuccine alfredo, and restaurant items like Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion.
CSPI also led a long campaign to label, and eventually eliminate, the artificial trans fat found in partially hydrogenated oils. CSPI worked with New York City and other jurisdictions to eliminate artificial trans fat from restaurant food, and its litigators helped prompt KFC to eliminate partially hydrogenated oil from deep fryers. In 2015, acting on a petition filed by CSPI, the FDA made a final determination that partially hydrogenated oil was no longer “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. Today, these industrially produced trans fats are no longer in the food supply.
In the wake of outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens connected to peanut butter, spinach, and other foods in the late 2000s, CSPI was the lead consumer voice spearheading the passage of the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011.
During the Obama administration, CSPI also worked closely with the White House and Congress to enact the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which dramatically improved the nutritional quality of school meals and removed sugary soda and other junk food from schools. One of CSPI’s signature policy achievements—calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus and menu boards—became law as part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
“They took on the food giants—and won,” wrote New York Times personal health columnist Jane Brody in a 2018 appreciation of CSPI and Jacobson.
In 2020 CSPI’s board of directors adopted a new vision statement for the organization: “CSPI envisions a healthy population with reduced impact and burden of preventable diseases and an equitable food system that makes healthy, sustainable food accessible to all.” Also that year, Bloomberg Philanthropies made a major, multi-year grant to the organization to fund new campaigns
During the Trump administration, CSPI led the fight to protect progress made on child nutrition, by hauling the U.S. Department of Agriculture into federal court when it rolled back nutrition standards on sodium, whole grains, and added sugars. The court sided with CSPI and threw out the administration's rule rolling back the standards.
And, during the COVID-19 pandemic, CSPI created an early evidence hub for tests, treatments, and vaccines for the disease; blew the whistle on hydroxychloroquine and other unproven or fake treatments; advocated for greater protections of workers in essential food chain jobs; and fought to ensure that the various coronavirus relief packages included increases in benefits from and easier access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school meal program.
Today, CSPI is poised to do more than ever before to help Americans eat well, stay well, and emerge from the pandemic with greater resilience, improved food security, and renewed hope for the future.
CSPI envisions a healthy population with reduced impact and burden of preventable diseases and an equitable food system that makes healthy, sustainable food accessible to all.
In January 2021 Dr. David A. Kessler, the former FDA Commissioner, resigned as chair of CSPI’s board to join the Biden administration as Chief Science Officer for the federal government’s response to COVID-19. Development consultant Robin Caiola serves as chair, and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter serves as vice chair, of the CSPI board of directors in 2021.
CSPI is largely funded by subscriptions to its Nutrition Action Healthletter, member contributions, and foundation grants; CSPI accepts no corporate or government donations and Nutrition Action accepts no advertising.