The Anti-Pleasure Principle
Jacob Sullum has made something of a career pooh-poohing the dangers of tobacco, so I wasn't exactly surprised to learn that he's similarly dismissive ("The Anti-Pleasure Principle," July) of the concerns the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) raises about various foods and food additives.
First of all, to say that CSPI is "anti-pleasure" or out to impose some kind of code of self-denial on others just isn't supported by the facts. We certainly don't force anyone to buy our books or read our Nutrition Action Healthletter, which Sullum admits has some 800,000 subscribers.
For every restaurant meal or food product we've criticized in our pages, we've praised another. For every "Food Porn" we've highlighted a "Right Stuff." We've said good things about sirloin steaks and roast beef sandwiches, along with the less charitable things we've had to say about nutritional nightmares like the Bloomin' Onion. I bet Sullum knows this, though he didn't care to tell your readers. I think what really troubles him is that somewhere, someone is getting information about food from something other than a big food conglomerate.
Take olestra. Sullum is certainly welcome to believe olestra is safe if he wishes, despite the science surrounding it. (For what it's worth, [discredited journalist] Stephen Glass, too, famously smeared our efforts to block the sale of olestra-containing chips.) Sullum laments that the negative publicity about olestra's side effects was largely to blame for its "disappointing performance in the marketplace" -- as if that's a bad thing. Is corporate advertising the only form of communication that should trigger a market response?
If ever there were an example of "extremism disguised as moderation" -- a charge leveled by Sullum at CSPI -- it is food advertising, particularly fast food and soda ads aimed at kids. After all, what's "moderate" about supersizing or Big Gulps? One would think that a libertarian would be more welcoming of our efforts to balance the billions corporations spend telling people what to eat.
When Sullum laughs at us for urging consumers to wash fruits and vegetables, you get the sense he's just piling on for the sport of it. And sportingly, he fails to mention that CSPI led the successful fight for easy-to-read nutrition facts labels on packaged foods; it has stopped scores of deceptive advertising campaigns, reduced the number of deaths due to sulfites, and encouraged major restaurant chains to add more healthful options to their menus.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that poor diet and physical inactivity cause about 500,000 deaths a year. Food-borne illnesses cause another 5,000 deaths per year. Sullum makes it sound like we do food safety advocacy just to scare people away from meat, poultry, or other foods. But we do this work for its own sake, to make all of those foods safer to eat. I'd suggest that it's Sullum, rather than CSPI, who is "determined to find the catch, even when there is none."
Michael F. Jacobson
Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest
I just slogged through Jacob Sullum's lengthy hatchet job on the CSPI, and I must say I am disappointed. As U.S. obesity rates have skyrocketed in recent years, CSPI is one of the only organizations consistently drawing attention to a basic cause: the food we eat.
In a country filled with industries, lobbyists, and special interests invested in a fatter and less healthy America, I hope you feel satisfied by your effort to villainize one of the few organizations trying to help Americans eat right by providing them sound and detailed scientific information about food. Thankfully, the quality of their activism and education has resulted in broad popular support, and is little impacted by the likes of you.
CSPI's achievements, which have included pressuring movie theaters to remove unnecessary fats from movie popcorn and the more accurate labeling of food, far outstrip what any one callow reporter might achieve working to support the status quo.
Ann Arbor, MI
Jacob Sullum replies: The fact that Michael Jacobson describes me as "pooh-poohing the dangers of tobacco" -- something I have never done -- gives you a sense of his commitment to accuracy. His attempt to impugn olestra by noting that Stephen Glass once defended it suggests that logic is not his forte either. Glass' fabrications as a journalist are legendary, but that does not make him a reverse barometer of the truth. Even CSPI gets things right sometimes.
When it doesn't, the group's critics should be able to question its claims without being accused of trying to silence an alternative source of information. In the case of olestra, "the science surrounding it" is on the side of the product's defenders. Some consumers inevitably will experience gas or loose bowel movements after eating any product; that fact alone does not make those symptoms "side effects." You have to ask how many of the complaints cited by CSPI involved purely coincidental symptoms, especially when a placebo-controlled, double-blind study finds no gastrointestinal impact from eating olestra products.