Center for Science in the Public Interest

From World Chemical News: CSPI Emerges as Major Player in Global Food Politics

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group best known for reviews of Chinese restaurant food and movie popcorn, has emerged as a major player in global food politics.

Joining with counterparts in the UK and Japan, CSPI enjoys observer status at Codex Alimentarius meetings. The group also participates in the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue and seeks to influence World Trade Organization negotiations on agriculture policy.

Launched in 1971 by three young scientists, including executive director Michael Jacobson, CSPI has become a potent force in both domestic and international food politics. Its far-flung activities are supported by nearly one million subscribers to its monthly magazine, Nutrition Action Healthletter. Over the years, the group has been a gadfly and occasional ally of food companies and regulators. CSPI counts among its successes passage of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which transformed U.S. food product labels.

CSPI began looking seriously beyond U.S. borders about six years ago. “The Uruguay Round in 1994 got us started in a major way, because it obligated the U.S. to consider international concerns in making domestic policy,” Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director, told World Food Chemical News. “The food industry was becoming increasingly globalized as well. We couldn’t do our job effectively if we ignored the impact of globalization on industry and government.”

That same year the European Union threatened to challenge U.S. nutrition labeling requirements under NLEA as a trade barrier. CSPI was galvanized into defending the law it had helped to pass. “We decided we’d better take a closer look at these international agreements,” Silverglade recalls.

International aspects of issues considered

CSPI does not have an international affairs department as such. Many of the group’s scientists, lawyers and policy analysts devote some of their time to global aspects of their issues. “I was the only one doing it six years ago,” says Silverglade. “Clearly what we need now is not a separate department but to interweave international considerations into our projects.”

As an example of CSPI’s approach, Silverglade pointed to a recent petition asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban certain antibiotics as animal growth promoters. The petition cited an EU ban on the same animal drugs. Soon after, CSPI learned that the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office had complained that the EU ban represented a trade barrier.

“We followed up by writing [USTR] Charlene Barshefsky,” Silverglade said. “We generated a record showing that the EU was scientifically justified, and we recommended that the USTR coordinate its position with [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], which held views similar to the EU’s.”

CSPI began evaluating functional foods several years ago. Realizing that the functional food movement was more mature in Japan, the group commissioned a U.S.-based Japanese graduate student to conduct a research program. CPSI then issued an international report on functional foods in the U.S., UK and Japan about a year ago.

CSPI recently learned from a trade publication that Swiss authorities had found residues of diethylstilbestrol in beef imported from the U.S. FDA had banned DES use in food animals many years ago, but the U.S. Agriculture Department had stopped testing for residues in the 1990s.

Working with Swiss authorities and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, CSPI persuaded USDA to resume DES testing and launch a criminal investigation of the exporter. “We discovered a domestic problem by monitoring international developments,” commented Silverglade. “In brief, it’s a small world.”

CSPI began taking an interest in Codex in the mid-1990s and asked the UN Food and Agriculture Organization about participation. “We had zero impact as a member of the U.S. delegation,” Silverglade recalls. “We researched ways to participate more directly and effectively.”

When FAO expressed reluctance, CSPI pointed out that it has a Canadian office and thus qualifies for observer status as an international nongovernmental organization. “We went to several meetings as an observer, then decided to form an international coalition of consumer groups to increase our effectiveness even further,” Silverglade said.

Consumer groups form alliance

CSPI reached out to the Food Commission in the UK and the Japan Offspring Fund to form the International Association of Food Consumer Organizations, which was granted Codex observer status in 1997. IAFCO focuses on the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, the Codex Committee on General Principles, and full Codex Commission meetings. “We plan to expand IAFCO to include more groups and attend more meetings,” Silverglade said.

IAFCO lobbied the Codex Food Labeling Committee and the Executive Committee to begin work on an international standard for quantitative ingredient declaration (QUID) on food labels. QUID is in place in the EU, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, but it is strongly opposed by the U.S. food industry.

“The U.S. doesn’t have the strongest label law in the world,” Silverglade complains. “The U.S. has no QUID requirement and no freshness dating requirement. FDA ignored our petition for QUID, but we got approval for new work [on an international standard] in Codex. The EU, Thailand and other countries were supportive. The U.S. was the only country that opposed it in the labeling committee.”

CSPI also participates as an observer at Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) meetings, and as an active participant in the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. “We’re wary of advisory committees, but some important things are discussed in the TACD,” Silverglade said. “CSPI and the UK Consumers Association co-chair the food working group. We share information and coordinate strategies, and we have access to government officials. We can also try to counter the impact of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue, which is working on dietary supplements and GMOs.”

Global system needs to ‘harmonize upward’

As part of its global reach, CSPI is working with consumer groups in Singapore and Australia in their efforts to get mandatory nutrition labeling. A similar effort is under way in Canada, where CSPI has 130,000 members and an office in Ottawa with a full-time attorney and two full-time nutritionists based in Toronto.

In both Washington and Ottawa, CSPI is concerned that current negotiations for a U.S.-Canada seafood equivalency agreement will result in a watering down (no pun intended) of Canada’s superior seafood inspection system (see WFCN, April 12, Page 18). “The U.S. has been known to resort to bullying and arm-twisting on economic issues,” says Silverglade. “We’ve met with both governments to urge upward harmonization.’ Would the U.S. be willing to improve its program in order to achieve a genuine equivalency agreement?”

CSPI seeks to raise international standards throughout the food system. “We’re in a global economy to stay, but we have to harmonize upward,” Silverglade insists. “Clinton and Gore have at least given lip service to the concept. It was mentioned in Gore’s acceptance speech.”

“It’s the only way the American public will support free trade. Unfortunately, the multinational companies seem to have the ear of governments. WTO and Codex are used as forums for deregulation. We’re trying to reverse that trend.”

CSPI wants the WTO to reconsider the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement, a position favored by the EU and strongly opposed by the U.S. “The EU is frank about its goals,” says Silverglade. “They may only want interpretive policy statements’ rather than amendments or technical clarifications, but they do want to modify the SPS Agreement, which provides us with an opportunity to have our views interjected into the debate.”

Silverglade has scheduled meetings with WTO officials in Geneva this month to get clarification. “Is the WTO/SPS working for consumers?” he asked. “There are signs the current system is not working well, such as the riots in Seattle and the trashing of a McDonald’s in France.

“The root of the problem is that the SPS is a trade agreement, not a food safety agreement. New problems keep cropping up due to growth in international food trade. The SPS right now does not address these problems and does nothing to raise standards. We’ll keep pushing for a new food safety agreement.”

- Steve Clapp

World Food Chemical News
September 13, 2000