Sunday, September 17, 2006

I am completely unqualified to issue scientific opinions, but that’s about all I have in common with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). However, I do consider myself somewhat of an authority on political hardball, and it’s time corporate America started playing it with the CSPI.

By way of brief description, the CSPI has taken it upon itself to act as the nation’s diet police. Its sworn enemies are fat, sugar, caffeine, alcohol and calories in general. The CSPI case against food rests on “scientific evidence” that living on a diet of organic microgreens and distilled spring water will result in fewer health problems than a diet of actual food. Unfortunately for the Americans who rely on CSPI for “information,” two specific problems exist with the group’s activities that make most of its nutritional nagging highly suspect:

c First, CSPI does not conduct actual scientific research. Instead, it is a public policy advocacy group. The organization wants the public to assume it does research, when what it really does is troll through thousands of scientific journals to pinpoint research that supports its pre-existing political agenda.

There are no laboratories of CSPI researchers busily running slides under microscopes or observing laboratory mice. Rather, CSPI headquarters occupies a typical office building full of fax machines and computers used to prepare legal briefs and distribute those carefully selected bits of existing research that support CSPI’s view of the world. While CSPI wants the public to believe it is conveying new and useful information, it is only circulating a very small and nonrepresentative sample of existing scientific research.

c Second, CSPI is not content with merely basing its case on scientists who agree with it. It attempts to leverage policy pressure to smear scientists who reach conclusions different from its predetermined political agenda. Just this month, for example, the CSPI directed fire at everyone from the Food and Drug Administration to a Harvard Medical School professor. The message is clear: If your research supports conclusions we don’t like, you will pay a price.

This, of course, is antithetical to everything true science represents. Science does not need coercion from pressure groups to function or prevail. In utilizing such tactics, CSPI is acting no differently than, for example, a corporation suing or smearing a scientist who wrote a journal article finding flaws in one of its products.

Of course, there’s a more fundamental point here. Virtually every American of even reasonable intelligence knows consuming large amounts of such products as ice cream and bacon does not make for a particularly healthy diet. For crying out loud, we know some foods are healthy and others aren’t.

At the same time, we’re aware that even if we squat in a hut and live off of seasonal berries and carefully selected field greens, we still will not live forever. Consequently, some of us choose to enjoy the occasional steak, latte with whipped cream, cigar or glass of whiskey because we realize living in a culinary monastery is, well, not particularly enjoyable. The silent majority of American citizens who feel this way really don’t appreciate holier-than-thou nutritional nannies such as CSPI constantly lecturing us about what is and isn’t healthy, and then trying to limit our choices by forcing those who provide consumer products that lack the CSPI “seal of approval” to stop providing such products.

While the American public may get the joke when it comes to CSPI’s so-called “research,” far too few in corporate America are willing to stand up to its nonsense. This reticence to confront any group with the words “science” and “public interest” in its name has allowed this small band of extreme liberals to become the Jesse Jackson of the scientific community. The message to businesses is simple: Do what we want or we’ll smear and sue you in an effort to force you to spend money and drive down sales of your product.

However, like all terrorists who extract benefits by making threats, the best way to deal with CSPI is to never even enter into negotiations. Just as President Bush refuses to negotiate with islamic terrorists, corporate America should steadfastly refuse to negotiate with food terrorists like the CSPI.

Corporate America needs to realize CSPI does not have the resources or credibility to fight on more than a handful of fronts at any one time. The political lesson here is that united and firm opposition to the food police and pseudoscientists at CSPI represents the only realistic path to ensuring Americans regain control over our nutritional choices. It’s also a good business strategy.

Bob Barr is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia and a former U.S. Attorney there.

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