The Harvard Food Law Lab was founded in the Fall of 2013 by Professor Jacob Gersen as a center for coordinated and directed research in the emerging field of food law. The Food Law Lab is currently situated within the Petrie-Flom Center, and works closely with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Mission

The food that is produced, distributed, and consumed in our country is a function of a complex web of federal, state, and international laws. At the Food Law Lab at Harvard Law School, our mission is to make that legal structure visible, and to make it better.

We focus on three key areas:

  • Promoting research, scholarship and innovation in food law;

  • Supporting increased clarity in the legal regulation of food; and

  • Partnering with others in the field to develop new curricular offerings in this ever-growing and dynamic field.

Although the Food Law Lab focuses on legal problems, it supports a research agenda that is interdisciplinary, blending law with history, anthropology, philosophy, social science, and the humanities. We work with faculty, students and practitioners across various disciplines to foster innovation in the food law curriculum and the growth of modern scholarship.

Work

GMO food labeling. Overfishing. The childhood obesity epidemic.

Perhaps most apparent in national headlines and debates, food law functions in numerous and complex ways in our own lives every day. Though largely hidden, the power of food law lies in its constant intersection with our choices and activities, and how intricately it intertwines with our cultural norms and personal preferences – it is a “Law of Everyday Life.” Despite the recent proliferation of food law issues in the public arena, scholarly research and course offerings at most law schools have not kept pace. In academia, food law has primarily been taught as a subset of Food and Drug Law, focused primarily on federal regulation and pharmaceuticals. The Food Law Lab supports new research and teaching, inside and outside of the classroom, to improve awareness, increase transparency, and develop the best solutions concerning the food law issues in our lives.

Harvard Law School offers a seminar taught in conjunction with our Food Law program, allowing law students to engage directly with legal and policy debates by developing and publicly disseminating new research on food. We partner with the UCLA School of Law Resnick Program to sponsor the annual Food Law and Policy Conference. And we sponsor events that increase awareness, spark dialogue, and support education around important food law issues. In these ways, we foster innovation in the curriculum at schools across the nation, and the growth of modern scholarship among faculty, students and practitioners.

Primary Areas of Focus

While we welcome and support research and teaching on any issues related to food law, we are primarily focused on issues in three main areas:

  • Institutional Food explores the law and practice of food provision in institutional settings such as prisons, schools, and the military. At the turn of the century, such institutions tended to receive systematically lower-quality food products. Today, given the combined proportion of the population in schools, prisons, and the military, much of our nation’s diet is being supplied by institutional food. Yet, neither the law governing institutional food, nor the food practices of institutions, nor the consequence for individuals living in those institutions, has been adequately evaluated.

  • Food Safety & Food Quality considers the relationship between food safety and food quality, and the legal challenges and solutions related to managing our food supply system for optimized output.  The fundamental challenge of Food Safety is to identify potential intentional and unintentional contaminants in the food supply and either prevent them from entering the system, or be able to find and remove them after entry; the challenge of Food Quality is to ensure that healthy, nutritious, and good-tasting foods are produced and consumed. These two problems are related, but they are also often in conflict as there is often a taste/safety tradeoff, and government regulators have strong incentives to favor safety. This decision process may seem sensible, but it also has significant long-term consequences for what we eat and the way we eat it.

  • Food Information and Transparency. The cornerstone of the United States food law system is information provision: people should know what they are eating. As a result, naming, labeling, and claiming are all heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and by state tort law. More than fifty currently pending lawsuits involve challenges to food products names or labels, some brought by consumers, some brought by competitors. Yet, we know remarkably little about how information provision actually affects consumer beliefs and behavior. The Food Information Awareness project seeks to explain and ultimately improve the use of information policies in the law of food.

To learn more about the Food Law Lab, visit their website!

Jacob Gersen is Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Director of the Food Law Lab.  He holds a PhD and JD from the University of Chicago, where he also taught prior to joining Harvard in 2011. He is co-editor of Food Law and Policy (with Michael T. Roberts) and is an expert in food law, administrative law, legislation, and constitutional law.      

Alyssa Lary is the project coordinator.  She can be reached at alary@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-5487.

For more information or to support the food law lab, please contact: thefoodlawlab@law.harvard.edu