An interview with Citizens for Health Board Chair James S. Turner

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February 18, 2014


Jim Turner

By LINDA BONVIE, Food Identity Theft editor

In an age when it’s not unusual for consumer petitions and outrage to cause big food manufacturers to remove ingredients, when the “informed” consumer is becoming more the norm than not, and easy access to dietary supplements is a “given,” it may be difficult for those too young to recall the original campaigns calling for safer and healthier products to realize how dramatically things have evolved over the last four decades.

To get a better perspective on what’s been accomplished and what has yet to be, as well as the role that Citizens for Health (CFH) has played in enabling consumers to make informed choices, I spoke with CFH board chair and food consumer activist James S. Turner, a partner in the Washington D.C. law firm of Swankin & Turner.

Turner, author of the landmark 1970 book, The Chemical Feast: the Nader report on food protection at the FDA and co-author of a follow-up book, Making Your Own Baby Food and more recently, Voice of the People: the Transpartisan Imperative in American Life, was one of the original “Nader’s Raiders,” a group of graduate, medical, and law, students who, working with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, investigated and ultimately changed many policies and gave new life to investigative journalism in the 1960s and ’70s.

Turner recounted his first meeting with Nader after a nine-month attempt to get an audience with him, sparked by a law-school assignment in 1966 to study Nader and his role in bringing about auto-safety reforms.  Although Nader at the time was known only as a critic of the auto industry (having authored the book Unsafe at Any Speed), Turner realized as the class progressed that he was much more — that he was someone who “was actually arguing for corporate responsibility.” Starting with their meeting in March of 1968, he used his growing knowledge of food issues (inspired by the birth of his son Chris in 1966) as the basis for a whole new collaboration with Nader, one that culminated is Turner’s authoring The Chemical Feast.

FIT: You call yourself a food consumer activist. How did you get into that line of work and do you find it satisfying?

TURNER: Absolutely satisfying. I started out in 1968 investigating food additives, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
In 1969, my 25-student Nader team (mostly from law and medical schools) went to the Food and Drug Administration to focus on food additives, including the artificial sweetener cyclamate, which after a review the FDA took off the list of chemicals that are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for addition to food. As a result of the cyclamate manufacturers having been unable to prove the product’s safety to the satisfaction of the FDA, it has remained off the market ever since.

In 1975 I helped get a warning placed on saccharine, another synthetic sweetener, and from 1974 to 1981 I worked with the scientists who persuaded an FDA Public Board of Inquiry that aspartame (NutraSweet) needed more research before it could be marketed.  However, Reagan’s newly appointed FDA commissioner reversed the board in July of 1981.  Donald Rumsfeld, president of the Company seeking Aspartame/NutraSweet approval served on Reagan’s presidential transition team, had found the new commissioner among doctors who worked at the Defense Department in the mid-1970s when he was secretary, and decided not to redo research his company had done on the sweetener, which the FDA had found flawed.

In 1976 I worked with Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire to help protect consumer access to dietary supplements with the passage of the 1976 Proxmire Act, and again in1994 as part of CFH, campaigned for the successful passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). The part I’ve played in all of these issues and many more is one I’ve found very gratifying

FIT: What was the issue with cyclamate?

TURNER: When I first advised Nader “let’s do food,” I pointed out that food would exemplify the same things he was talking about in cars. And sure enough, we found that just like the car market, where the mantra was “safety doesn’t sell,” the food industry said nutrition didn’t sell. With cars, they sold design and prestige, while in the food industry the focus was on convenience, and, of course, sweetness. An excellent example has been the reliance on artificial sweeteners. When the 1938 Food and Drug Act was passed, there were a number of things that needed to be addressed further. To this end, Congress appointed a Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food and Cosmetics (1950-52) which came up with several major amendments: Three of these were the Pesticide Act of 1954, the Food Additive Act of 1958, and the Color Additive Act of 1960.

These acts each created a regulatory mechanism for the additive they were addressing. The Food Additive Act, for example, said no food additive could be put into the food supply until it had been proven to be safe by the food industry. So industry had to turn in data to the FDA that would show “this is safe.” There were several exceptions, one being the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. In the 1958 Food Additives Act there was this GRAS list exception, and the idea was that if no scientists raised questions about an additive, then it was GRAS. They put out a list of about 100 or so chemicals to the scientific community asking, “Do you think these qualify as GRAS?” Virtually all the scientists who responded on cyclamate said no, but the FDA allowed it on the GRAS list anyway.

When we sent our students out we added the GRAS list as a subject that should be looked at. We talked to everybody we could find at the agency, and one of the things we uncovered was the cyclamate story. And the evidence was building up that not only shouldn’t it be on the GRAS list, but it was inherently dangerous and likely shouldn’t be used in the food supply at all. That’s how we got involved with it.

Due to our investigation into cyclamate, one night two network news programs led with that story and it developed into a big firestorm. Within a week the FDA announced plans to remove cyclamate from the GRAS list, and that launched all this public awareness of what we were doing. That’s the opening story in The Chemical Feast.

FIT: Have you been involved in similar efforts with other questionable sweeteners?

TURNER: Yes, both saccharine and aspartame. When I got involved with saccharine, I did not think banning it was a good idea based on the law and science, but I thought a warning was. Ultimately, Congress adopted a warning and that warning was on the saccharine packages until 2000, when it was ‘pardoned’ by President Clinton at the end of his term with a law he signed  erasing the warning.

FIT: How did you get involved with aspartame?

TURNER:  I became involved with a group of scientists led by Dr. John Olney, from Washington University in St. Louis who were investigating the addition of MSG to baby food.

Dr. Olney was doing studies on various kinds of food additives to determine whether they might be among the causes of mental retardation. He had an assay that he used to show when the brain is being damaged by a chemical. MSG was one such substance, as was aspartic acid, one of two amino acids in aspartame, which caused the same kind of brain damage in animals that MSG did.

In 1970 we started looking into NutraSweet (the brand name under which aspartame was first marketed). When the FDA approved it in 1974, we objected and the agency granted us a hearing before a Public Board of Inquiry which stopped the marketing of NutraSweet until the end of the hearing.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president, and he placed Donald Rumsfeld, the president of Searle, the drug company that originally made NutraSweet, on his transition team. Rumsfeld facilitated the appointment of the new FDA commissioner, Arthur Hull Hayes, who quickly overturned the ruling not to allow NutraSweet to be marketed. So that which had been won by a scientific process was lost to a political process.

FIT: What is the focus of Citizens for Health?

TURNER: Basically it is choice, information, redress and safety that comprise our fundamental approach, because those are the consumer rights that President Kennedy envisioned in 1962 in a message to Congress. Those four things are what Kennedy said were the inherent rights of consumers in the marketplace.

CFH began by working hard for passage of The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994, which passed Congress overwhelmingly.  CFH coordinated a campaign that generated well over one million letters, which still remains the largest number of letters written to Congress on any single issue. The idea was to stop the FDA from blocking access to information about vitamins, minerals, amino acids and certain other dietary supplements.

CFH believes that provided with proper information, consumers can make sound choices and intelligently comment on and participate in marketplace decisions.  Once that that process is run fairly, CFH believes, safer, healthier, and more nutritious and effective products will ultimately emerge.

FIT: Who are CFH’s allies?

TURNER: We’re work with a wide variety of groups and individuals, and in our campaigns we ally ourselves with business interests that share our goals.  In the campaign for DSHEA in 1994 we worked very closely with the retail natural food industry. In fact the president and founder of CFH was a health-food store owner who was also the president of the trade association for that industry. He felt that the trade association wasn’t doing enough in the public interest, so if he could create a consumer group that worked with the same issues, consumer interests would better be served.

That was the philosophy CFH was created with and why and how we got involved promoting DSHEA. When organic food came under attack in 1999 we worked very closely with the Organic Trade Association as well. CFH has conducted several information campaigns on alternative sweetener issues, and recently we’ve also received funding from the Sugar Association individual consumers, bequests and foundations.

FIT: Why is high fructose corn syrup such an important issue for CHF?

TURNER: We’ve always found artificial sweeteners to be a particularly egregious example of how the entire food system works. The thing about synthetic sweeteners is that they offer no real benefits that justify the risks involved in ingesting them, beyond the argument that using the non-caloric ones to sweeten food or beverages help keep weight off. But scientists are increasingly concerned that man-made, non-caloric sweeteners contribute to the problem of weight gain rather than helping address it.  With HFCS, however, there isn’t even that specious rationale. It became ubiquitous in our food supply because, as a result of advancements in technology, it can be processed cheaply, allowing the food industry to save money by substituting HFCS for sugar.  In an effort to cloak HFCS as healthy, industry has spent a lot of money trying to portray it as “natural” to consumers.  But the fact is, none of the HFCS formulations are found in nature and HFCS did not exist until scientists patented a process to synthesize it from starch—any starch –,and this is done by using advanced technology to change the starch at the molecular level.
There has been a great deal of data emanating from all kinds of different scientific sources about the effects of HFCS consumption. The CFH’s role is to let the public know about this information, as well as the disinformation it’s getting from the corn processors.

We want to promote awareness that scientists believe that HFCS is different from natural sugar, that sugar consumption has remained relatively constant over the last 100 years, that paralleling the rise in HFCS consumption has been a huge increase in diabetes and obesity (and bottled water sales to ensure that everybody understands that correlation is not causation). We want the public to know that FDA has not approved HFCS containing more than 55 percent fructose, but many products have well above 55 percent all the way up to 90 percent fructose.   We believe consumers should be aware of these facts and that the corn industry is attempting to hide them.

We are not arguing that HFCS has caused health problems; what we’re saying is that scientists are concerned about the prevalence of HFCS in our food supply. And, if a fair market is to live up to its word that it allows informed consumers to choose the best products available, it is very important for the public and regulators to know what those scientists have said and to take that into consideration. That’s the dynamics of CFH, to enable people to make informed choices.

Also, even though the FDA says that 55 percent fructose in HFCS is the maximum amount it considers to be GRAS, the Corn Refiners Association has continued to say that much higher doses are allowed by the agency.

The HFCS process is a gold-plated example of how a business model is created, – i.e., let’s sell a sweetener to the food industry and then make up arguments that diverge from the core issues.

FIT: How can consumers make the biggest impact on the food supply?

TURNER: Without a doubt by the way they buy. More and more people are making buying choices based on what they learn, and those are often quite different from what the food industry would like them to do. It is through such collective purchasing decisions that reforms come about. Harmful additives are removed by manufacturers, and wholesome and organic products are made more readily available when consumers demand these choices.


Editor’s s note: The following sources offer further reading on the health implications of HFCS use:

Ed. [L. Cantley, Cancer, metabolism, fructose, artificial sweeteners, and going cold turkey on sugar, BMC Biology 2014, 12:8; S. Swithers, Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.  Cell Press (2013).] Ed, See, e.g. Global Public Health (2012) 1-10, High fructose corn syrup and diabetes prevalence: A global perspective, Goran, Ventura, Ulijaszekb; Eur J Nutr (2012) 51:445–454; Metabolic and behavioural effects of sucrose and fructose/glucose drinks in the rat, Sheludiakova, Rooney, Boakes; Metabolism Clinical and Experimental 61 (2012) 641-651, Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose on the pharmacokinetics of fructose and acute metabolic and hemodynamic responses in healthy subjects, Le, Frye, Rivard, Cheng, McFann, Segal, Johnson, Johnson; Eur J Nutr. (2010) 49:1–9, Comparison of free fructose and glucose to sucrose in the ability to cause fatty liver, Sánchez-Lozada, Mu, Roncal, Sautin, Abdelmalek, Reungjui, Le, Nakagawa, Lan, Yu, Johnson; Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior 97 (2010) 101–106, High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels, Bocarsly, Powell, Avena, Hoebel; Experimental Biology and Medicine 234[6] (2009) 651-661, The type of caloric sweetener added to water influences weight gain, fat mass, and reproduction in growing Sprague-Dawley female rats, Light, Tsanzi, Gigliotti, Morgan, Tou.],