Speakers at the 4th annual Harvard-UCLA Food Law and Policy Conference on Friday criticized the current food regulatory environment, arguing that it stifles innovation and encourages excessive food waste.
The day-long conference, held this past Friday, featured four panels and a total of 18 experts representing law firms, animal welfare advocacy groups, regional government agencies, and entrepreneurs in the food industry. The panelists explored what the “next frontier” of the food industry could look like.
The first panel, titled “Keys to Survival as an Innovator in the Food Regulatory System,” discussed how current food regulation policies deter small businesses from entering the food industry because lawyers increasingly file class-action lawsuits against them.
“The number of class actions filed regarding food labelling went from under 20 in 2008 to over 425 active cases in federal court in 2015 and 2016,” said panelist Diana R. H. Winters, assistant director of scholarship at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy.
“Are consumers getting less willing to put up with deception in the marketplace? Or are these cases driven by a small group of plaintiff lawyers who are no longer making money from tobacco class actions?” Winters asked her audience.
Jeremy Halpern, partner at the law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, agreed with Winters’ assertion, adding that the growing demands for food information have had a detrimental impact on the industry.
“There is a tension between sufficient information to make good choices and driving people to this place where no amount of information is over-information,” Halpern said. “We are in a strange environment now because much of the regulation that was intended to drive consumer information, to drive people's ability to choose wisely, is now actually inhibiting their ability to get better food.”
Another panel, emphasized the urgency of altering worldwide meat consumption habits. Bruce G. Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, cited a 2015 report by Chatham House that claims that world governments will not meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement unless meat consumption goes down.
“Meat production is extremely inefficient,” Michael Selden, CEO of Finless Foods, said. “The worst way possible to make a hamburger is to use a cow.”
Solutions panelists proposed to stem environmentally-unsustainable meat-consumption trends included healthier plant-based alternatives and “clean meat,” which is slaughter-free meat produced by replicating animal fibers.
“In 2013, we made 10,000 of these fibers this way and we created a hamburger, cooked it, and ate it,” said Mark J. Post, professor of physiology at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. “That was the first example of this, which shows that the technology is there and there is good reason to do it—environmental, food security, animal welfare.”
The final panel, “Disclosure, Health & Safety in the Regulatory Jungle,” highlighted the difficulty the restaurant business faced in upholding “healthier” standards while still satisfying consumer taste.
Michael S. Kaufman ’75, a principal and partner at Astor Capital, expanded upon this issue.
“When people are told something is healthy, there is this sense from the customer that, ‘Well, I’m here to be indulgent, I’m here to have a good time. I don’t want to be restricted by what’s good for me,’” he said.
Attendee Christopher G. Van Gundy, a partner at Keller and Heckman LLP, gave positive reviews of his experience.
“I thought it was really forward thinking. I know both of the organizers and I view them as thought leaders,” he said. “I really have changed the ways I view the food world from this.”