Executive Insights | January 2010 | By Blair Chancey

The Most Controversial Man in Foodservice

Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, discusses what he has in his crosshairs for 2010.

He looks more like a tenured professor than a zealous consumer advocate. He is soft spoken with round wire glasses and a navy sports coat, a warm smile and gray curly hair. He is Michael Jacobson, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and at first glance it looks like he’s more likely to serve up a warm cup of tea than a lawsuit.

But Jacobson is a force to be reckoned with. Since founding the organization in 1971, he’s been a self-pronounced “food detective,” uncovering everything from trans fats, high calorie counts, and excessive sodium levels in America’s food supply. At times his crusade has even led him to the courtroom, bringing lawsuits against and threatening to sue chains including Denny’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and KFC, and brands like Red Bull, Vitaminwater, and Sara Lee.

While critics have called the CSPI the “joyless eating club” and insist Jacobson’s work is based on “junk science,” major chains realize that, for better or worse, Jacobson is an industry agenda-setter. QSR visited the CSPI offices in Washington, D.C., to learn what Jacobson has in his crosshairs for 2010.

The CSPI has a unique way of dealing with the industry—you sue brands. Is that really helping anyone? We sued Denny’s a few months ago, not for being a unique culprit but more representative of large chains that serve large meals, and there was a lot of competition to be the defendant. Companies didn’t know that.

Lawsuits are so costly and time-consuming. We really made a strong effort to come to a settlement with Denny’s and first we asked for 30 percent reduction [in sodium]. Then we offered a combination reduction between sodium and trans fat. They wouldn’t do that. Then we suggested things like having a “high in sodium” label next to items that had more than 3,000 milligrams of sodium. And we suggested sodium labeling for each item on the menu, and they just wouldn’t agree to anything.

They ignored you? They did make some changes. They’ve lowered sodium in several of their products. They’ve made some improvements probably due to the threat of litigation, but we couldn’t get a formal agreement out of them. So after a year and a half we filed a lawsuit. This kind of a lawsuit is at the frontier of consumer law.

If the government gets strongly involved in sodium reduction, then there will be less of a need. And then we could see some broad progress.

Why target salt? Most people are blissfully unaware that high sodium levels in their foods are a major problem in regards to their health. High sodium diets promote high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes. And there’s been so little publicity in the U.S. about this problem, it’s no surprise that the public isn’t aware of it. But big companies are well aware that high-sodium diets are a major problem because the British government has been beating them up on them for five years. They’re lowering sodium levels in Britain and they need to do the same in the U.S.

How do brands balance sodium reductions and consumers’ taste standards? No one is saying food should be tasteless. But what I understand is that when McDonald’s cut the sodium in its chicken McNuggets in Britain, their sales increased. Yum! Brands in the U.S. is lowering sodium levels. It’s something that companies have to do some experimenting around. Some companies may need to gradually reduce sodium over several years. When Burger King testified at the Institute of Medicine meeting, the spokeswoman said, ‘At Burger King we like to do things in a big way. We’re not going to settle for small reductions. We’re aiming for big reductions, not gradual ones.’ So it may depend on the company.

The best thing about the government getting involved, which it will, is that it pressures all companies to lower sodium levels. Then specific companies won’t feel they’re the only ones and that people won’t like their food. It levels the playing field.

New York City is working toward a gradual reduction in sodium levels. Do you support that strategy? Yes, we really support New York and think they’re doing the right thing. I hope they get voluntary compliance but they could regulate. They could even require warning notices on excessively salty foods. So it could have a big impact. And they’re working with other city health departments, so it’s really much broader than New York City.

Is there a timeline for when all of this will be mandatory? The Institute of Medicine is going to come out with two reports soon; one on hypertension prevention that will certainly say that lowering salt is an important component, and they’re scheduled to issue a second one in February that is a report on how sodium should be lowered in the American diet. Some of that will be consumer-oriented (people should read labels), but they’ll also go into different techniques like using a little potassium chloride or using less salt, using tastier ingredients so you don’t need as much salt. They’ll give technical tricks and talk about government regulation—what the FDA should or could do. And I’m sure that will be a basis for FDA involvement.

On another timeline, Campbell’s has already lowered sodium in its soups, so that puts pressure on other soup companies. We’re going to see more of those types of competitive pressures.

What other ingredients will you be going after in 2010? Salt is the single most dangerous ingredient in the food supply. Several experts have estimated that if we can cut sodium levels in packaged and processed foods in half, it would save 150,000 lives a year. Nothing else in the food supply approaches that.

The much smaller thing that there’s been very little discussion of is food dyes that are in many soft drinks, Jell-O, fruit drinks, and cookies. They’re mostly in kids’ foods. Food dyes affect children’s behavior, and it’s something that shouldn’t be in the food supply. They’re just inappropriate considering the evidence that’s built up over the years.

The European Union is requiring a warning notice on foods with dyes. That will go into effect in July. And the British government has told companies to replace dyes with natural colorings or nothing at all.

Is there anything else beyond ingredients? The bigger challenge is, how do we get people eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? That’s something that won’t be done by fiat. No one is going to require consumers to eat at restaurants that offer five servings of fruit or vegetables a day. It will get increasing attention from health officials, especially in relationship to obesity.

There will likely be media campaigns; maybe health departments will award stickers to restaurants that serve certain number of fruit and vegetable dishes. But a lot of it can be done voluntarily, and restaurants can certainly do their part. No one is going to ask them to give up meat, poultry, and cheese in favor of vegetarian dishes. Hopefully, though, they’ll start experimenting with new options. But it’s going to take a lot of consumer education because people like their fried chicken.

That brings us to the issue of menu labeling. It’s costly to operators but seems inevitable. What’s your opinion of that requirement? [Instead of the 20-chain rule] the smartest threshold would be sales of $3 million. A large independent or a chain of five locations has the resources to post calorie counts. They can hire a dietitian; they’re smart enough to do it.

Right now, if you go into a restaurant, you have no way of knowing what’s in the food. You’re just blind. You have to give them information, and calorie information is the most general that people understand. If there’s going to be one number on a menu, it should be calories.

Coca-Cola recently announced it would be putting calorie counts on the front of its cans. If all soft drinks had that, would there still be a need for the soda tax you strongly support? Many states and Chicago have special soft-drink taxes, so the idea isn’t entirely novel. It is novel at the federal level. And there’s so much talk about a soft drink tax now because of two things. One is the obesity epidemic and the understanding among health experts that soft drinks are a unique contributor to weight gain because we consume such huge volumes of them.

The second thing is health reform. Legislators are looking for $900 billion over 10 years, and everyone says, “Tax them.” A soft-drink tax would be a way to provide some of that funding. A 7-cents-per-12-ounces tax could raise $100 billion over 10 years. A lot of people on Capitol Hill are looking at that. And the industry is coming out against it in a big way.

How would the soda tax affect restaurants? A Coke at a restaurant may be $1.50, and at a grocery store you can get one for about 25 cents. So a 7-cent tax would make a much bigger difference to retailers than to foodservice. A restaurant could portion that increase price over all its foods. They don’t have to raise the price of anything really. I don’t think it would have a terribly big impact on restaurants.

What restaurants should do is cut the portion sizes of drinks. I hope President Obama comes out and says that. Having 64-ounce drinks goes right to the waistline. The menu labeling law should require that drink fountains list calorie counts as well.

How should brands balance all these demands with keeping prices low for consumers? It’s something each restaurant has to grapple with. There are some changes that can be made, like changing salad dressings to low-sodium versions, that no one would notice the difference. For example, using light mayonnaise or offering whole-wheat bread. There are incremental steps that don’t cost anything.

There are changes, like using leaner meat or putting two slices of tomato on a sandwich, that do cost more. And they might have to raise the prices.

Doesn’t that price out consumers who use the $1 menus to feed their families? They could make the $1 menus healthier by using lower-sodium cheeses. Or they could offer $1.25 menus. Sometimes there needs to be more options and sometimes there needs to be better nutrition engineered into the food because no one would know the difference and it won’t cost anything. Restaurants should gradually move into a lower-calorie, lower-sodium, more-fruits-and-vegetables direction. We understand that the marketplace is going to dictate what a business person does. But they can help move the market and understand that more consumers, now than ever before, are interested in healthier products.

How does the Obama administration’s focus on healthy food affect your organization’s goals? It is a tremendous help. It’s a sea change. The Congress being governed by Democrats is also important. There was so little progress under the Bush administration and the previous six years with the Republican Congress under Clinton.

They’re going to be very supportive of healthier diets. Salt will be a starting point. They’re very interested in nutrition labeling, major public-health campaigns surrounding obesity and nutrition, they’re inviting proposals for $373 million of prevention grants from the stimulus money.

What brands do you think are doing the right things? Yum Brands, KFC in particular, is offering grilled chicken. Pizza Hut is lowering sodium levels, and they’ve offered to do menu labeling. Starbucks making 2 percent milk its standard is an improvement. At least in New York City, they’re also offering smaller pastries—more bite-size cookies. And I’ve met with McDonald’s, and they’re making changes beyond trans fats.