"Congress shall make no law ... [prohibiting] the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It’s one of the U.S. Constitution’s more neglected rights. But right there in the First Amendment, just after the bits about freedom of speech and religion, is a kind of sleeper clause: Congress is prohibited from abridging “the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Here at CSPI, petitions are our bread and butter.

To be clear, this sort of petition is not typically something presented to you for your signature by someone brandishing a clipboard outside your local Safeway. Rather, for CSPI, it is a painstakingly researched, footnote-heavy legal document submitted to a U.S. government regulatory agency seeking a particular outcome within that agency’s purview. Often, we ask our supporters to sign on or submit a comment to the agency’s docket formally supporting our petitions. A couple of recent CSPI petitions illustrate the principle.

Back in early April, we petitioned the Food and Drug Administration asking that it go beyond its already-finalized 2-year guidelines, themselves the product of an earlier CSPI petition, to develop intermediate and 10-year voluntary sodium targets in those food categories contributing the most sodium to the U.S. diet. We cited evidence that reductions in daily sodium consumption to about those levels recommended by the government would save between 44,000 and 92,000 lives and $10 billion—$24 billion each year. We also asked the agency to establish a database of the worst offending products.

Later in the same month, to coincide with CSPI’s 3-day Sugar Reduction Summit, we filed a similar petition with FDA seeking voluntary reductions in added sugar content in those food categories conveying the most sugar. For this, we enlisted a longtime CSPI partner: the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has had similar initiatives on both sodium and sugar dating back to 2009. The aim is to induce companies to reformulate their products with lower added sugar so that by year 10 an average consumer receives only 10 percent of their calories from added sugars, as advised by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. At present, about 14 percent of calories in American diets come from added sugars.

And we’re not stopping there. We have another petition pending at FDA seeking mandatory front-of-package warnings on foods containing too much of certain nutrients and yet another at the U. S. Department of Agriculture seeking an added sugar standard for school meals. 

The extraordinary thing about this petition process is that its implications go beyond the mere right to submit the petition itself. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, a reviewing court may step in and take action to “compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed.” Applied to petitions, this means that CSPI can have its day in court if the agency takes too long to respond to our petition. By requiring FDA to respond to our petition, we can prompt the agency to take forceful action or, at a minimum, gain insight into the agency’s position on the topic. Moreover, CSPI can even seek to set aside the agency’s final decision on our petition if it can convince a court that the decision was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” That’s a tall order, to be sure.

Still, the petition process is one of the strongest levers we have to advance our vision of a “healthy population with reduced impact and burden of preventable diseases.” In the past, CSPI has used this process to secure an added sugars line on Nutrition Facts labels and to eliminate artificial trans fat from the food supply. It’s remarkable that our laws afford such rights, and we plan to exercise them in full.

Click here to show your support for our petition on added sugars.