Throughout his career, Center for Science in the Public Interest founder and President Michael Jacobson has made an indelible mark on the food and grocery industries.
From the day he came to Washington, D.C., in 1971 to intern with Ralph Nader, he has put his doctorate in microbiology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work — studying food, ingredients, additives and impacts on public health. After his internship was over, Jacobson helped found CSPI in 1971. The organization was one of the first to use science to influence policy — a mission it continues to this day.
After 46 years, Jacobson is stepping down from his leadership role at the organization this week. Food Dive sat down with him last month to talk about his years in food activism; the changes he's seen in consumers, policymakers, manufacturers and retailers; and where he sees the industry heading.
The interview, transcribed below, has been lightly edited for length and readability.
Food Dive: What got you started in food activism?
Jacobson: I came to Washington in 1971 to be an intern with Ralph Nader. … I had received my Ph.D. in microbiology. I was doing basic research, nothing to do with foods. So I came down here to Washington and I sat down with Nader and a couple of his lieutenants. Nader said, "Here's Jacobson, he's got a Ph.D. from MIT. What are we going to do with him?"
One of the guys said that he was just finishing a book on the Food and Drug Administration, so why don't we have Jacobson write a book about food additives? I said, "Oh, OK, but what are food additives and how do you write a book?" I was pretty naive back then.
I had no previous interest in food. I grew up in Chicago. I ate a typical American diet. I certainly ate at McDonald’s a lot when I was in high school. But I dug into it, I wrote a book on food additives. And one of my conclusions was that nutrition was much more important than food additives. So, I started learning about nutrition and wrote a book on nutrition that became very, very popular, and have been working on those issues ever since.
So, it's not that I had a passion about food safety or nutrition, I wanted to use my scientific background to try to influence public policies or corporate practices. If Nader's assistant said — "Hey, I just finished a book on air pollution. Why don't we have Jacobson do something on asthma?" — my life could have taken a totally different turn.
Food Dive: What led you to be one of the co-founders of this organization?
Jacobson: … At Nader's office, there were three scientists and we were all classified as interns. We were volunteers. One of the three said, "Hey, my internship is ending in September. What if we started a new organization run by scientists and not lawyers?" Which was pretty novel, because there aren't many such organizations. So, maybe foolishly, the other two of us said, "Hey. Great idea." While we continued to work at Nader's office for a while, the one guy started researching how to set up an organization, finding a lawyer, preparing bylaws, doing that sort of stuff. And so ... we got the organization going in 1971.
… My field was food additives and then nutrition. Another guy worked on toxic chemicals like lead and asbestos. And the third guy worked on highways and air pollution. So we were an amalgam of three interests. They left around 1978, and that's when we largely shrunk to food issues. Though we've worked on some broader issues from time to time.
Food Dive: When you first started the organization, what were your goals and how has that evolved over the last 40 years?
Jacobson: Well, the general goal was to serve as a consumer watchdog of industry and government, so that hasn't changed. We were always interested in consumer education also — both to educate the public and to generate public support for changes in policies. The issues obviously have changed somewhat. A lot has changed in the food world.
... It was pretty lonely back then. There were no real nutrition activists. The American Heart Association provided good public information. So, we started in '71, and then some big changes occurred later in 1977. I should say that our focus on nutrition was saturated fat, sugar, white flour and whole grains, junk foods — and there weren't many other people talking about those aspects of the food supply. The general mantra from dieticians and the government was, "All food is good food, just eat a variety of foods, and you'll be fine." So, that's bacon and eggs for breakfast and a couple of cheeseburgers with fries and soda at lunch, then a big pizza and soda for dinner. Not a very healthful diet.
But in 1977, a Senate committee came out with a report called Dietary Goals for the United States. And that was a landmark report, and [it] said that Americans should be cutting down dramatically on sugar, salt, and saturated fat, and eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and healthful foods. It was just one Senate committee, but it was part of the establishment and really set the tone. Then Jimmy Carter became president in '77, and the Department of Agriculture developed the first dietary guidelines for Americans that was a national nutrition policy. It was a skimpy little brochure, maybe 16 pages. … And that said exactly the same things — more fruits and vegetables, less salt, less sugar — and that was a landmark report also.
… So, that set the tone, and the world has come along to a great extent — not that our diets have changed hugely, but at least the direction is clear. … Our emphasis in the subsequent 40 years or so has been to educate consumers, to get companies producing food voluntarily that's a lot healthier than they had been producing, and getting the government to adopt smarter nutrition policies, either through Congress or the administration.
We've had some mixed luck over the years. … We led the effort to get nutritional labels on food packages. We led the efforts to reduce soda consumption and, along with that, sugar consumption. We led the effort to try to get government policies to lower sodium levels in the food supply. Improve school lunches, improve school food, both in terms of junk food vending machines and improving school lunches, and huge changes there.
"Our emphasis in the subsequent 40 years or so has been to educate consumers, to get companies producing food voluntarily that's a lot healthier than they had been producing, and getting the government to adopt smarter nutrition policies, either through Congress or the administration."
Founder and president, Center for Science in the Public Interest
One of our clearest public health achievements was getting the government to ban partially hydrogenated oil, the source of trans fat. That's probably saving on the order of 50,000 lives a year. … It's interesting, because nobody notices that foods tasted any different once that change was made, but it took a huge effort with tons of publicity, petitions to the government, studies of one sort or another by government, by outside parties, researchers to establish that trans fat is truly the most harmful fat in the food supply and could be replaced. … So, we started on trans fat in 1993, and that's kind of characteristic. ... Trans fat — maybe it's one of the quicker ones — it took 20 years. 20 years to get the FDA to ban partially hydrogenated oil, and previously, to get trans fat listed on food labels, and that had a big effect. That told industry that the government really saw trans fat as a problem, and many companies voluntarily replaced it. Then, once the ban was put in two years ago, that was the final nail in the coffin of trans fat.
I think 90% — maybe even more — of partially hydrogenated oil is gone from the food supply. I think it's a really remarkable story where scientific research informed public opinion. Consumers started yelling and screaming, saying they wanted foods without trans fat. Companies went back, food manufacturers went back to oil suppliers and said, "Give us better oils." Oil suppliers went back to seed developers and said, "We need to have better seeds." And the seed developers went to farmers and said, "Here's some seeds. We'll pay you more to grow these seeds than the previous ones."
The farmers created the supply and it rippled back all the way through the manufacturing chain. It's been totally without effect on the taste or the cost of food. It's really remarkable. And though industry kicked and screamed for many years, denied that there was any problem, they finally made the changes. So that was 20 years.
Our battle over salt is much longer. We hired a nutritionist in 1977 and I said, "Bonnie, why you don't you look into salt and see if we're consuming too much, what are the harms, and what can we do?" And she concluded too much salt is harmful, and we worked with lawyers, so in '78, we petitioned the FDA to limit the amount of sodium in different categories of food. We've been waging that battle. Bonnie is still with us working on salt.
And finally last year, the government proposed voluntary targets for companies to reach healthier levels of salt in foods. The Trump administration hasn't finalized those targets, and that's kind of the focal point of policy efforts now. Meanwhile, we'll continue pressuring on companies to lower sodium. Many of the big companies have made commitments to lower sodium by 15 to 20% in the next couple of years. Globally, it's happening. So, the big companies are facing pressure all over the world. In some countries, [there are] formal regulatory limits on sodium, so the big companies see which way the wind's blowing, and will be making changes slower than they would if the FDA had regulations, but I think things are moving in the right direction.
Food Dive: Throughout your career, some people have called you the chief of the food police, some people have called you the —
Jacobson: Worst person.
Food Dive: And the person that brought everything together with science, consumers, manufacturers, regulators. Are these all true characterizations?
Jacobson: Well, we like to use the term "food detectives" more than "food police" because we don't go up to people and grab their soda away from them. We kind of work at a higher level of policies and broad education. But we try to make changes and we try to enforce the law. So we don't cringe when people call us the food police, especially if they have a smile on their lips.
On the other hand … we're very proud of the integrity of our work. We stick to the science. We don't make decisions based on personal beliefs.
"We're very proud of the integrity of our work. We stick to the science. We don't make decisions based on personal beliefs."
Founder and President, Center for Science in the Public Interest
… That's really what's given us credibility with the public, with journalists, with the industry and government. Because a lot of times industry will … call us names like the food police and worse, but we talk to all the big companies. And they realize that we're not crazies, that our contentions, our petitions to the government have a real solid basis.
Food Dive: What has it been like through the years working with all the different groups that you work with: consumers, manufacturers, retailers, government and regulators? How has that changed?
Jacobson: In the 1970s ... it was like pulling teeth to get any rational dialogue with those parties — government or industry. … There have been tremendous changes. …All the big companies recognize that diets high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar, white flour contribute to health problems, and they're trying to change their portfolios with greater or lesser success depending on the company. So now, when we talk to the companies, we don't have to yell. And they tell us that they're trying to switch to have more whole grains, to lower sugar levels, maybe to reduce portion sizes of candies, to cut sodium levels. And they tell us that we have to do a better job of educating consumers, because they say consumers don't want whole grains, they like the sugar, they like the salt. It is a challenge, I think, for everybody — government, industry, health organizations — to persuade consumers to give that whole wheat bread a try.
And so progress is slow, but in the early '70s, a negligible fraction of people cared about diet and health. ... Now maybe 20% of people really care. They choose brown rice over white rice, they look for skim milk. Clearly some people are eating more fruits and vegetables. So there have been big changes, but in some ways things change slowly.
… Another one that we've seen is lowering sugar intake by about 15% over the past almost 20 years. … It's slow. It's like one percentage point a year, and that's actually slowed down in the last few years, and the change has been largely due to lower soda consumption. … Per capita soda consumption, sugary sodas, have declined by 25% … since 1998. And so, that's a huge change in the amount of what had been a basic part of the American diet. Now people are going to bottled waters, and the soda companies are diversifying like mad. … They all have different varieties of bottled water, some flavored, some not flavored, SmartWater, Life Water.
... Fruits and vegetable consumption, despite the enormous displays in many supermarkets — overall, that hasn't changed in 20 years. … And that's really disturbing, especially when you consider all the farmer's markets, the supermarket displays, huge amounts of free publicity; every newspaper food section says eat more fruits and vegetables, so it's, you know, "Leave us alone already." And I think some changes are harder to make than others.
Eating whole grains, eating more fruits and vegetables, have been tough changes for the public to make. There it's not kind of stealth changes, like switching from partially hydrogenated oil to soybean oil or cottonseed oil. It's that whole grains look and taste different. General Mills is one company that has been using more whole grains, and I don't think people notice the difference; the taste is pretty much the same, maybe because of the sugar. But to eat brown rice instead of white rice, after a lifetime of eating white rice, it's hard to make that change.
Now, kids growing up in schools, they're being served more fruits and vegetables, they're getting more whole grains. Change will be slow, but hopefully it will come. It's unclear why it's happening, but rates of childhood obesity, of young kids have been leveling off and probably declining — and that's a great harbinger of lower rates of future adulthood obesity, and probably lower rates of diabetes and heart disease.
Food Dive: Is there anything that you regret not doing?
Jacobson: Well, one thing is we're very proud that we're started by scientists, [and] we hired scientists. ... The first person we hired was not as an administrative assistant, but another scientist, and then we stupidly hired another one. So we're clipping Federal Registers and so on ourselves.
But we should have hired more lawyers sooner, and we should have hired litigators sooner. I think we started our litigation project in 2004. … The food industry has taken us a lot more seriously since we started filing lawsuits. Our litigation team [has] two litigators now. We've brought cases against Coca-Cola, Kraft, Campbell, basically all the big companies, and have gotten significant changes in typically their labeling, sometimes in their marketing practices.
"We should have hired more lawyers sooner, and we should have hired litigators sooner. … The food industry has taken us a lot more seriously since we started filing lawsuits."
Founder and president, Center for Science in the Public Interest
One of our best lawsuits that we didn't ultimately file … [was] we sent Kellogg a complaint … [on] marketing junk foods to kids. Kellogg was the first company to sign a formal agreement not to advertise foods that had excessive amounts of calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar to kids. That became a model for what many other companies have done since then. And it was a long negotiation — I think it took a year and a half for various reasons. And I was chomping at the bit to sue, but cooler heads prevailed. But that was a very good outcome.
… We threatened to sue Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper Snapple for selling soda in schools. And we negotiated with them for about six months, and told them, "Look, enough of this negotiation, we're going to file unless we can come to an agreement." And I think the next week or the week after, they announced an agreement with the Alliance For a Healthier Generation, which is the Heart Association and the Clinton Global Initiative … to get most of what we were asking for out of schools. Our threatening a lawsuit was very influential. … The companies adhered to the agreement, they pulled out all regular sodas and … sports drinks within two or three years.
… We've worked on food safety from the early years, starting with food additives. Then in the 1990s, [we] started working on foodborne illnesses and have had some successes. The biggie, clearly, was being part of helping relieve the effort to get the Food Safety Modernization Act passed. It's been a long time implementing … but it really changed the focus of government regulation — from cleaning up after the fact to preventing foodborne illnesses in the first place. That's going to take a few years now before we see results, and I certainly hope that we see reduced numbers in foodborne illnesses. But the government is pointed in the right direction, and now the challenge is to provide the FDA with sufficient funding to actually really implement the law.
... I've always liked working on food additives, because it's a single chemical that scientific research can be very clear showing the chemical is safe, or causes cancer, or an allergic reaction. ... One that we've gone after in recent years is aspartame, the artificial sweetener, where there are three animal studies, very well-done animal studies showing that aspartame causes cancer, mostly leukemias and lymphomas, and the FDA refuses to take any action. … It's shameful. But you don't have the dead bodies — you can't show people.
Food Dive: What would you say has been the hardest battle that you fought?
Jacobson: … Well, salt has certainly been one of the longest battles, where the food industry has resisted any kind of government regulation. They finally came around to agreeing to voluntarily reduce sodium levels — which … could be temporary or they might not happen at all. But that's certainly been one of our longest standing, most important, most challenging battles. School lunch has taken forever. Getting added sugars on the label, that happened relatively quickly — within 10 years or so. That's fast. It's just when you consider all the roadblocks that are in the way of government regulation, the Congressional interference, publishing notices in the Federal Register, getting comments, lawsuits — practically everything that's significant just takes forever. And things that aren't all that significant take forever because of bureaucratic inertia.
When I first came to Washington, I thought change would come pretty fast, and I thought all you had to do was get an article in The New York Times and that would be enough pressure to get government to act. So my first summer, I had an article. We petitioned the FDA on a food additive and that made front page in The New York Times. I didn't even know about it for months — nobody told me about it. Of course, nothing has changed, and the FDA has not changed the regulatory status of that food additive in 47 years.
"I think it took 20 years or so for me to kind of understand that not everybody in the food industry is an implacable foe."
Founder and President, Center for Science in the Public Interest
… I've also learned to be much more cordial to people in the food industry. I learned that people in the food industry typically know a lot more about what's going on than people outside the industry. My knee-jerk reaction in my early years was to be nasty and insulting to officials in the food industry. I think it took 20 years or so for me to kind of understand that not everybody in the food industry is an implacable foe. Increasingly, people in the food industry really do want to improve their company's products. Some of the small companies that specialize in healthier products are clearly much more aligned with us than Coca-Cola or the Grocery Manufacturer's Association.
Food Dive: How will people will look at your legacy?
Jacobson: Well, hopefully they'll see that CSPI has served as a tremendous educational force in food safety, and nutrition. And that we are able to get some very significant changes from government and industry that save tens of thousands of lives a year.
Food Dive: Why are you stepping down now?
Jacobson: I never wanted to die at my desk, and I thought, "Gee, I'm getting older every year." I thought that we've made such progress in recent years in trans fat, soda pop, and probably salt. … Those were three of the issues close to my heart, and I thought, "OK, I could continue beating my head against the wall, but we've kind of turned the corner on those issues, and that now might be a good time for me to step down." I'm going to continue to be on the board of directors, and I'm going to work half time as senior scientist. So I'm not going to be gone, but I will pass the big office — and more of the responsibilities and the managerial responsibilities — off to my successor [Dr. Peter Lurie].
Food Dive: What are some things that are in the food industry that still need to change?
Jacobson: Well, one of the things … is getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables. People are remarkably resistant to having fruits and vegetables as the main part of their plate. That's one challenge to the food industry and to government and to health advocates.
... One of the main issues … not during the Trump administration, but after that, is front-of-package labeling. The nutrition labels are extraordinarily helpful to millions and millions of people, and hopefully have influenced companies to lower the sodium levels or lower the sugar levels now in their products.
… The FDA should adopt a sensible system, scientifically sensible, that would have the greatest impact in improving consumer's diets. The food industry will fight like hell to avoid such labels. So I'm not going to hold my breath, but looking down the road, I think in five years, that's going to be a major battle — with a background of more and more companies, and more and more supermarkets, and more and more countries, voluntarily labeling foods or having a mandatory requirement in some cases.
Food Dive: Where do you see the food business going in the next five years?
Jacobson: I think it's going to be moving in a healthier direction and at a slow rate of speed. Supermarkets don't care what they sell, if it's healthy or not, and many supermarkets are pushing healthier foods. Look at Walmart with organic foods. Who would have suspected that Walmart would be the biggest seller of organic foods? All of the big companies are buying small, organic, kind of more health-oriented companies, and they see that is where the profits are. Most of their standard foods have become commodities — and with a lot of competition from house brands — so they're looking at the little companies. They've bought Cascadian Farms and Odwalla and Kashi, and that's a trend that's going to continue.