Food and Drink Police

Published May 1, 2002

There have always been ascetics and self-scourgers, and in a free society they are at perfect liberty to act (and eat) as their consciences (or bellies) dictate. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is not content to use the old-fashioned and honorable tool of moral suasion.

It is not enough for them to try to convince the rest of us to renounce the “sinful” acts of devouring a bacon-cheeseburger or drinking a beer while reclining on a couch and enjoying a football game. No, the neo-prohibitionists are not satisfied with saying their piece in the marketplace of ideas. They reach for that ever-ready cudgel of the censorious scoundrel: the coercive power of the state.

As Robert Shoffner of Washingtonian magazine noted, “There’s a political point of view here, an economic view based on the idea that people are children and have to be protected by Big Brother or Big Nanny from the awful free-market predators. … That’s what drives these people: a desire for control of other people’s lives.”

Meal Censors

The Center for Science in the Public Interest was founded in 1971 by a trio of self-styled consumer advocates who had worked for Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

Michael F. Jacobson, James B. Sullivan and Jesuit Rev. Albert J. Fritsch initially pursued separate interests, including environmental pollution, nuclear energy and nutrition. But with the departure of Fritsch and Sullivan in 1977, CSPI turned almost exclusively to Jacobson’s passion: food issues.

CSPI has found much success in its campaign to disparage “unhealthy” food. Its work became known to many consumers in 1993, when the Center began to release controversial studies disparaging Chinese, Italian and Mexican restaurants for serving high-fat and unhealthy foods.

What makes officious nannies like CSPI so maddening is that they cloak their apparent goal of prohibition in the language of health advocacy. Some of the advice in the group’s Nutrition Action Healthletter is perfectly sensible, but the remainder can be highly controversial.

But the nannies are too canny to put the onus for “irresponsible” eating on the eaters themselves. They need bogeymen … and who fits that bill better than business leaders? It’s easier to get the prohibitionist agenda across if it is sold as an attack on business rather than people.

“Sometimes it’s fun to joust with major companies,” Jacobson says. Already he has taken on such giants as McDonald’s, Kraft, and Campbell Soup to challenge their allegedly deceptive advertisements.

End of Privacy

To call these people “do-gooders” is to give them far too much credit. They’re not do-gooders, they’re bullies. And cowardly bullies at that, eager to drag in the coercive arm of the state to fight their battles for them.

When Henry David Thoreau returned from Walden Pond, he pronounced “reformers … the greatest bores of all.”

But today the reformers operate with powers Thoreau never dreamed of. We may still enjoy a dish of ice cream or a bottle of beer in our private homes, but the neo-puritans are at the door. They want in, and they want our pleasures out.

James T. Bennett is an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Thomas DiLorenzo is an economics professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. This article is excerpted from “Food and Drink Police: Center for Science in the Public Interest Wants Government to Control Our Eating Habits,” issued by the Capital Research Center in May 1998. The full text of the article is available on the group’s Web site at