Picky Eater

For more than 30 years, Michael F. Jacobson has been the nation's most vocal food cop, whether you want his protection or not.

March 31, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- America's chief food scold understands that there are times when you just shut up, sit down and eat.

At a window table at the Tomate Bistro Italiano on Connecticut Avenue, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, understands this means you don't talk about the pea soup's salt content, nor the fact that the pasta serving easily exceeds government standards by a factor of two. Never mind the butter in the herb sauce on the trout, and don't even think about what's in the water -- the District of Columbia water.

You might, however, find fault with the wineglasses. What seems to be the trouble?

Some speck or smudge has evidently caught Jacobson's discerning eyes. He politely asks the bus person for clean glasses, thus floating a tidy metaphor for his life's work. From a distance, after all, the wineglasses seemed fine.

But then, so did kung pao chicken and fettuccine Alfredo. And the oil fast-food joints use to make fries, fish fillets and such. And the produce with sulfites and the potato chips with Olestra and the movie theater popcorn and that funny meat substitute called Quorn -- to give only a few highlights of CSPI crusades from the last few decades.

In each case, Jacobson found something amiss and issued the consumer equivalent of a fatwa. Perhaps you, the American consumer, did not necessarily want to know, because too much information can easily spoil a good time.

Jacobson thought you should know.

The consumer advocate inevitably risks self-righteousness, or at least party pooping. Darn, but kung pao chicken is good, isn't it? It happens that a CSPI report in the early 1990s revealed that this Chinese restaurant favorite contains roughly enough fat and salt to stop a horse. Around the same time, fans of fettuccine Alfredo were told their beloved dish is essentially "a heart attack on a plate."

Jacobson thought you should know.

In short order the wineglasses are returned, and after all that fuss one might think Jacobson meant to order wine. Not today, thanks. He acknowledges, however, that he actually sips wine on rare occasions.

What kind of wine?

"Inexpensive," says Jacobson. "I'm not a wine aficionado."

Just the same, Wine Spectator once put him on the cover: "Warning: This man thinks you drink too much wine ... Michael Jacobson: Consumer Advocate or Nutrition Terrorist?"

Terrorist. Ayatollah. Food Cop. Killjoy. Food Fascist. Nutrition Nazi. Jacobson goes by any number of names in the media, where he appears with stunning regularity. One thinks of former New York City Mayor Edward Koch, described as being "unavoidable for comment."

Jacobson is also about as thick-skinned as Koch, which would go with the territory. The Wine Spectator cover is framed and displayed in a prominent place in the CSPI office.

"I think it's fun," he says.

Within limits, of course. Jacobson took exception in 2002 to a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist's reference to his organization as "food fascists" and "nutrition Nazis." He wrote a letter to the paper posing a question: If one uses such loaded terms for people who merely would put nutrition information on menus, "what words do you have left for the real thing?"

Of course, he would not just supply more information. He would nationalize the snack-food tax now imposed in a few states, so long as the money were used to advance public-health education and exercise. He would get the junk food vending machines out of public schools. Given the severe allergic reactions caused by peanuts, he says he'd ban them if they were not already in the food supply.

The soft-spoken Jacobson seems type-cast for the role he happens to play, considering the froth of Ralph Naderesque gray hair, the ascetic's lean and hungry look, the brown eyes fixed intently on the mission.

A serious man, for sure, but James Sullivan, a co-founder of CSPI and still a member of the board, says Jacobson "has a great sense of humor."

If this doesn't come across in the course of a lunch, it could be Jacobson's light touch surfacing in the organization's Nutrition Action Health Letter, a lively, 10-times-a-year publication that brings in the bulk of CSPI's $15 million annual budget.

The January-February issue on fad diets referred in a headline to "The Atkins low-evidence revolution." A story on prostate health in the December 2003 issue was subtitled "The flow must go on."

Fried-food lovers had to laugh or cry when CSPI did a photo op with a giant block of solid shortening that looked like something dragged in from Stonehenge -- the better to remind people of the suspected artery-clogging effects of trans fatty acids. Then there were those rolls of toilet paper stamped with the name Olestra -- an unsubtle reminder that the fat substitute sometimes caused diarrhea. Jacobson himself dressed up as Tony the Tiger and prowled Capitol Hill in a bid to ban advertisements for sugary snack foods on children's television.

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