The Harvard Food Law Society’s 2013 Forum on Food Labeling
examiner.com, March 11, 2013
Harvard Food Law Society’s first Forum on Food Labeling was a smash hit. A shining example of collaboration, Harvard Law School along withAnimal Welfare Approved, Let’s Talk About Food, Chefs Collaborative, and The Boston Globe produced a stellar line-up of speakers and panel sessions.
Over two days, we explored the tangled web of consumer, corporate, advocate and legal interests in food labeling. Urvashi Rangan of Consumer Reports – who delivered the simultaneously funny and startling From Fables to Labels at TEDx Manhattan last year – delivered the keynote address.
The man behind Food Day Michael Jacobson advised us to “think of a label as a battleground.” Companies affix terms like “healthy” and “natural” to their products and groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (which Jacobson leads) use legal means to pursue those they consider misleading.
According to Carter Dillard of Animal Legal Defense Fund, “If 15% of consumers surveyed take away that the conditions suggested are true, that’s grounds for false advertising.”
“Transparency is a necessary condition and value of a free market,” Dillard pointed out. Sadly, transparency is all too rare in our food supply chain. Dillard called labels “ads” that promise consumers certain qualities or conditions – and in many cases are accompanied by price premiums. Premiums paid and food consumed, on investigation, many of the promises fall flat.
The forum audience included students, faculty and staff members from Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, Bunker Hill Community College, Babson, Harvard and MIT. “There has been a sea change among students in terms of interest in food,” UCLA law professor Michael Roberts said.
This Examiner was particularly impressed by the degree to which speakers democratized language and clearly defined their terms. Only a few times did I get lost in the lawyer talk, and my confusion served as a reminder that when it comes to food systems we must listen hard and choose our words smartly so as to make room for all voices, perspectives and disciplines in the conversation.
In that spirit, here’s a short collection of new-to-me food label terms and fun facts:
- nutrition label – label making a health claim (highly regulated)
- attribute label – label making a production-practices claim – e.g. “natural,” “fresh,” “humane” (less regulated – growing in popularity)
- humane-washing – depictions either pictorial or linguistic of conditions drastically different from reality (e.g. cows on pasture or chickens in the yard when they’re not)
- adulteration – tampering with the content and quality of food (e.g. recent horsemeat in UK scandal)
- Affidavit system – producer signs off on its own claims (i.e. self-made claims)
- Third-party verification system – an independent body inspects, reviews, and certifies producer claims
- Kosher – is among the fastest growing labels today
Harvard’s Forum on Food Labeling was at moments encouraging and at others infuriating. But at all times it was outstanding in design, content, diversity and energy.
This is one conference to watch.
Food Law Society to host Harvard Law School’s first conference on food labeling
(Press Release) CAMBRIDGE, MASS. Feb. 11, 2013 – The Harvard Law School Food Law Society is hosting its second food policy conference, and the first law school-hosted conference dedicated to examining the issue of food labeling from a legal perspective in Cambridge, Mass. on March 8-9, 2013. The conference will explore the legal and policy aspects of food labeling, specifically its effects on consumer knowledge, choice, and behavior, and will feature a series of lecturers and panelists who are experts in the field.
Students in the Food Law Society recognized that the U.S. legal framework and regulatory oversight greatly influence consumer knowledge and choice. Rachel Clark, President of the Food Law Society says, “People find food labels universally confusing and often unhelpful. We realized that a lot of this confusion stems from the laws and regulations behind the labels, and we thought the time was right to bring attention to this aspect of the system.”
Urvashi Rangan, Director of Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports, will provide a keynote speech during Friday’s events. Other speakers include:
Rebecca Goldberg, Attorney at the Office of Chief Counsel at FDA;
Michael Roberts, Adjunct Professor at UCLA Law School;
Jennifer Pomeranz, Director of Legal Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University;
Helen Falco, Director of Nutrition & Health Policy of the Coca-Cola Company;
Jesse LaFlamme, CEO and President of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs;
Carter Dillard, Director of Litigation at the Animal Legal Defense Fund;
Andrew Gunther, Program Director at Animal Welfare Approved; and
Christina Roberto, Health & Society Scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health.
AWA Program Director Andrew Gunther, panelist on marketing claims, says, “We tend to see discussion on labels from the consumers perspective, but this legal aspect is fresh and innovative.”
Event supporters include Animal Welfare Approved, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Petrie Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Let’s Talk About Food, the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, the HLS Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Harvard Environmental Law Society.
The first day of the conference will be held on Harvard Law School’s campus in Austin Hall (1563 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, MA) from 3 – 7:30 p.m. The second day of the conference will be held at Pfizer Lecture Hall (12 Oxford St. Cambridge, MA) on Harvard University’s campus from 9 a.m. to noon.
Register at http://hlsforumonfoodlabeling.eventbrite.com/#. Admission is free for students with ID, and open to the public for $5 per day of attendance. Visit www.hlsforumonfoodlabeling.com for more information on the conference schedule, speakers, panelists, and topics of discussion.
As the first organization of its kind, the Food Law Society has helped place Harvard Law School at the center of an exciting, emerging area of law and policy. The Society seeks to highlight and foster discussion about the environmental and public health implications of food law and policy as part of a broader movement to better incorporate food law and policy into legal education and practice.
The Food Law Society provides students with hands-on exposure to the numerous issues in law, policy, science and management that confront professionals in the fields of food law and policy. Members participate in clinical projects and conferences, host speakers, take trips and collaborate with other organizations in the University and beyond in an effort to address food issues. Find out what events the Food Law Society is planning at http://www3.law.harvard.edu/orgs/foodlaw/.
Published January 2013 by PMQ Pizza Magazine
RAW MILK REMAINS CONTENTIOUS: Panelists on both sides of issue square off at Harvard Law forum
Boston Globe, February 22, 2012
CAMBRIDGE – Milk is our first and most basic food. For years, there’s been a contentious and emotional debate over how we are allowed to consume it. Raw milk, unpasteurized and whole with its purported health and taste benefits, is on one side of the argument. On the other is pasteurized milk, the modern heavyweight champion of food safety.
Raw milk proponents have been portrayed as oblivious hippies who are tempting bacterial fate. Defenders of pasteurization, in turn, are cast as nanny-state corporatists with unsophisticated taste. Each side charges the other with misunderstanding health, freedom, parenting, and – among other issues – what it means to be American. Last Thursday night, Harvard Law School hosted a debate between leading thinkers on each side of the issue. It was not disappointing.
Outside the 160-seat Harvard auditorium the scene was chaotic. Ron Paul supporters passed out buttons, while Concord film director Kristin Canty promoted her documentary film, “Farmageddon,” an unflattering portrait of what she calls “milk enforcement” activities by the USDA. By the time host Jonathan Abrams of the Harvard Food Law Society called the evening to order, the hall – now equal parts law schoolers, raw milk ideologues, and foodie spectators – was standing room only. The debate was streamed live on the Internet to 2,400 viewers, who posted commentary on Facebook and Twitter.
Raw nutrition advocate Sally Fallon Morell and author David Gumpert (“The Raw Milk Revolution”) squared off against food-safety attorney Fred Pritzker and Minnesota dairy inspection director Dr. Heidi Kassenborg. Each took to the podium to state their positions, followed by a debate driven by questions from the moderator and audience.
Fallon Morell, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation, presented a frightening series of photos of malnourished mice that had been fed only pasteurized milk contrasted by photos of healthy mice that had been sipping raw milk. A litany of scientific papers followed. Fallon Morell said they supported the common pro-raw claims that raw milk strengthens the immune system, and that pasteurized milk is linked to increases in allergies, asthma, and lactose intolerance. And don’t get her started on ultra-pasteurized milk. Her claims drew eye rolls from Pritzker but rapt interest from the crowd.
Raw milk is currently legal for retail purchase in 10 states. In 15 others (such as Massachusetts), only on-farm sales are allowed. Gumpert, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor at the Harvard Business Review, backed Fallon Morell with a more businesslike and moderate approach centered on food rights. He claimed – with a blizzard of statistics – that the 9 million people who currently consume raw milk in the United States have a low incidence of foodborne illness. Gumpert suggested that bacteria-contamination recalls for other foods – both widespread (cantaloupe, spinach, peanut butter) and frequent (eggs, oysters) – prove that risk is inherent in all foods. He presented a photo montage of farmers who face prison terms for selling raw milk. One such case has been the object of Stephen Colbert’s on-screen consternation.
Pritzker, whom audience members in later questioning insisted on addressing as “the lawyer” and who has been prosecuting foodborne illness outbreaks for the past decade, emphasized the potential for raw milk to sicken “or kill” with a variety of unpleasant-sounding bacteria. Transporting it over state borders turns out to be a federal violation. And, he stated, there are “no benefits to raw milk.” Minnesota dairy inspector Kassenborg disarmed the audience with cartoons that depicted the messy and unsterile nature of milking a cow. “The udder,” she said, “is right next to the anus. And cows poop a lot.”
Panelists regularly interrupted one another to discredit and dispute. Gumpert peppered his comments with genteel attacks on Pritzker. Kassenborg’s manner suggested that the other panelists might never have seen a cow. The audience was no less contentious. Attendees used the microphone more to present viewpoints than ask questions. One woman said that raw milk cured her child’s chronic eczema. Many decried government intrusion into food choice. As the end of the night drew near and so many people in the audience hoped to speak or pose questions, some resorted to shouting.
The emotion and intransigence around raw milk are as persistent as the lack of national policy. The issues are made more complex by advances in technology and amplified by social media.
As the crowd filed out, Deborah Valenze, a professor at Barnard College and author of “Milk: A Local and Global History,” sighed as she offered her conclusion. “Now I’m more ambivalent than ever.”
RAW MILK LAWS To find a state-by-state guide, go to www.farmtoconsumer.org/raw_milk_map.htm.