Standing up for Science: CSPI’s Top 10 Wins from 2020

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The remarkably rapid development of vaccines to treat COVID-19 is an historic victory for science in protecting public health. Throughout 2020, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has relied on the power of science and data to protect school nutrition programs, provide food assistance for low-income families, and beat back scams and misinformation about COVID-19, one of the worst public health threats in a century. What follows are the public health wins we are most proud of this year:

1. Boosting access and benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the core food and nutrition assistance program for low-income families. At long last, Congress passed the much-needed COVID-19 relief package on Dec. 21 that was signed into law on Dec. 27. It increases maximum benefits under SNAP by six months.

2. Thwarting the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back school nutrition for 30 million children—two thirds of whom are low-income. In April, a federal court struck down a rule by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that rolled back nutrition standards on whole grains and sodium in school meals. CSPI and Healthy School Food Maryland brought the case in federal court in Maryland, represented by Democracy Forward and Vinson & Elkins, LLP.

3. Extending free school meals for all schoolchildren--all year long. In response to the pandemic, USDA this fall issued universal waivers allowing all school districts to be reimbursed for meals provided to every student, regardless of income, through the end of the 2020-2021 school year. CSPI continues to advocate for the passage of the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act to provide free lunch and breakfast for every student in school.

4. Working with communities to win groundbreaking nutrition policies across the nation. Consumers in Berkeley, California, scored a major victory in September with the passage of the nation’s first healthy checkout policy, which requires grocery stores to offer healthier foods and beverages in the checkout aisle. In November, lawmakers in Prince George’s County, Maryland, became the first in the country to pass legislation to comprehensively improve restaurant kids’ meals.

5. Assuring COVID-19 treatments and transparency are grounded in scientific evidence and public transparency. In June, CSPI president Peter Lurie testified before a House subcommittee, sounding an alarm on the effectiveness of two repurposed COVID-19 treatments, hydroxychloroquine and famotidine. In addition, in February a federal judge greatly expanded the public’s right to have access to the results of clinical trials studying drugs and medical devices. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by the Yale Media Freedom and Information Access and NYU Technology Law & Policy Clinics on behalf of Charles Seife and Lurie, with the support of the Yale Collaboration for Research Integrity and Transparency

6. Fighting COVID-19 scams and supplement fraud that endanger the public. In July, CSPI policy director Laura MacCleery testified before a Senate subcommittee on how unscrupulous, misleading claims by supplement companies pose a danger to consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic. CSPI also issued several letters urging the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and Amazon to crack down on companies trying to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic by illegally claiming supplements fight the virus. At CSPI’s urging, the FDA and FTC took action against disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker for making deceptive COVID claims about his colloidal silver supplements.

7. Advocating for sensible science-based oversight of genetically engineered foods. In March, CSPI biotechnology project director Gregory Jaffe testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee about the dangers of ongoing Trump administration efforts to reduce safety oversight at USDA, FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency for products made using genetic engineering and gene editing.

8. Raising the alarm on the risks of sodium for public health. Salt Wars: The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet, by Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., the co-founder and former executive director of CSPI, was published in October. The book, which was reviewed in the Washington Post, exposes the story behind the deadly salt content in America’s processed and restaurant food, and our policymakers’ failure to curb it.

9. Prohibiting misleading “No Nitrate” claims on processed meats. In December, the USDA said it will stop requiring the terms “Uncured” and “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” on labels for meat processed with carcinogenic nitrates or nitrites using non-synthetic sources of those chemicals, such as celery powder. The move comes in response to a 2019 petition from CSPI and Consumer Reports.

10. Implementing the updated Nutrition Facts Panel with a line for added sugars. After a long delay by the Trump administration, the implementation of the updated Nutrition Facts Label will be required for smaller companies by January 2021. The updated labels will provide more helpful information to consumers, with the new line for added sugars, bolder presentation of calories, and more realistic serving sizes.