Michael Jacobson, A Pioneer Of Food Activism, Steps Down And Looks Back : The Salt Michael Jacobson invented a new style of food activism. For four decades, he led the fight against "junk food." He's now stepping down as president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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A Pioneer Of Food Activism Steps Down, Looks Back

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A Pioneer Of Food Activism Steps Down, Looks Back

A Pioneer Of Food Activism Steps Down, Looks Back

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If you're the kind of person who studies food labels to see how much sugar or salt is in the package, you can thank a man named Michael Jacobson. Those labels are one legacy of Jacobson's battle against junk food. And now, after 44 years, he's stepping down as president of the watchdog group that he founded in Washington, D.C. NPR's Dan Charles has this profile.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Michael Jacobson didn't grow up caring much about whether his food was healthy.

MICHAEL JACOBSON: You know, I'm a kid from Chicago, so hotdogs on a white bun with relish, that's what you eat.

CHARLES: The whole country's food culture was different back then.

JACOBSON: When I think back of a supermarket when I first got into the food biz in the early '70s, you couldn't find whole wheat bread. You couldn't find brown rice. You couldn't find yogurt.

CHARLES: And Michael Jacobson is part of the reason why that's all changed. He got into food activism by accident. It was 1970. He was 26 years old, a soft-spoken scientist getting his Ph.D. in microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he had been caught up in the political ferment of the time.

JACOBSON: I saw, you know, cities burning down, Vietnam being toasted to a crisp and thought, could I be doing something using my background, trying to improve society?

CHARLES: He came to Washington to work as an intern for Ralph Nader, who'd just become a household name fighting big companies on behalf of consumers. Jacobson showed up the first day.

JACOBSON: And Ralph says, OK, here's Jacobson. He's got a Ph.D. from MIT in microbiology. What could he do?

CHARLES: One of Nader's associates assigned him to look into food additives. People were starting to worry about what might be in all those packaged foods that were filling supermarket shelves. But once Jacobson started investigating, he decided the problem wasn't so much the additives. It was the food itself, specifically all the sugar, saturated fats and salt that companies were putting into their products. In 1973, he and two co-workers set up the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It combined scientific expertise with a shrewd sense of how to capture public attention.

JACOBSON: We were very anti-establishment counterculture, really took every opportunity to slam the food industry.

CHARLES: They fought to get those nutrition facts labels on food packages, to ban trans fats, stop the marketing of sugary drinks to children, and reduce salt levels in packaged foods. In its early days, CSPI did a lot of things just to get attention. They organized a food day modeled on Earth Day.

JACOBSON: Huge events, a lot of publicity.

CHARLES: They sent a bag full of extracted decayed teeth to the Food and Drug Administration to illustrate the dangers of sugar. In the lobby of CSPI's office today, you can see some mementos of those rabble-rousing early days. There's a shiny piece of metal that used to be part of a vending machine.

JACOBSON: We had a vending machine smash-in. It was a lot of fun. We smashed the hell out of a vending machine, and this is all that's left.

CHARLES: And the evil of the vending machine was...

JACOBSON: What comes out a vending machine? It's almost all junk.

CHARLES: And always has been, I guess.

JACOBSON: Always has been.

CHARLES: Jacobson's message has not changed much over the years, but his tactics have. CSPI has a staff of 50 people now. Instead of public protests, they now take companies to court for deceptive marketing or aiming ads for unhealthy foods at children. And Jacobson says he's learned sometimes it's a good thing to sit down and talk with your adversaries.

JACOBSON: In my early days when I'd meet a corporate executive, I would just as soon yell at them as talk to them. Now I realize those people know a lot more than I know about certain things and that having a reasonable conversation makes sense.

CHARLES: Some corporate executives, for their part, say they've come to respect Jacobson. Richard Black used to work at Pepsi and Kraft Foods.

RICHARD BLACK: Mike, he's driven by his heart. And he's also a scientist.

CHARLES: So there's always some data behind Jacobson's demands, Black says. He'll tell you exactly why he's suing you.

BLACK: And it was that I think honesty, not in an angry or a mean manner, but actually trying to get something done.

CHARLES: Michael Jacobson sometimes gets portrayed as the nation's food scold, taking all the pleasure out of eating. He says that's unfair. Yes, he gave up hot dogs, he says, but he still puts sugar in his tea.

JACOBSON: We've never said you have to be pure. It's perfectly fine to eat a little junk from time to time.

CHARLES: The problem is Americans still eat too much junk. After 40 years of trying to change that, Jacobson says, he understands now these things move very slowly. But he's convinced American food culture is changing for the better. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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