My interest in food law knows no boundaries

Written by: Michaela Oldfield

Primary Source:  Institute of Food Laws and Regulations Blog 

Some of you may think that in my posts I wander way outside the bounds of food law, others might not even realize I do. So rather than give a legal analysis of some current issue, I’m taking a moment to discuss the term.


Law students, and consequently law schools, are increasingly interested in food law. Courses, clinics, student groups and  entire programs are popping up across the country. As these programs expand, it’s important to clarify the meaning and purpose of food law.


Food law refers to the body of laws and regulations that govern the manufacturing, distribution and sale of food. It is primarily about regulatory law and regulatory compliance, with some  advertising law and litigation related to food. A venn diagram of traditional food law might look like something like this:
food law venn 6.jpg
If you want to study and learn the nuances of this niche area of regulatory law and litigation, there are a number of longstanding forums that address the topic. Some of these are the Food and Drug Law Institute and several American Bar Association sections including the Antitrust Section’s Agriculture and Food Committee, the Section of Science & Technology Law’s Food, Cosmetics and Nutraceuticals Committee, and the Section of Litigation’s annual food law meeting. Food law tracks at conferences presented by industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Institute for Food Technologists are also good places.


Of course, Michigan State University is a leader in food law with our online International Food Law Internet Certificate Program and online Master of Laws (LL.M.) or Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.) in Global Food Law. We also have our upcoming Food Law Current Issues Seminar, where I hope to meet many new and interesting colleagues!


So why are so many students interested in food law? I think it’s because there’s a trending interest in food right now, especially among millennials who make up the bulk of students currently enrolled in law school classes.


I’m certainly part of this trend. I’m a millennial with a J.D., and I helped found a food law society at my law school. With the J.D., I can research and analyze the legislation, regulations, guidance and case law that constitute the legal reasoning justifying particular legal outcomes.


However, my interest in food law extends beyond just the legal outcomes. I am interested in how social and political contexts influence our laws concerning food as well as agricultural production and food access. I also care about how the legal outcomes differentially affect farmers, food manufacturers, consumers and related stakeholders and their consequent impacts on the economy, the environment, public health, and individuals’ and communities well being.


Some scholars use the phrase “food law and policy” to conceptually capture the broader array of issues that intersect with food law. This is akin to an ever increasing venn diagram absorbing overlapping legal and policy domains.  Somewhat like this:
food law and policy venn v5.jpg


I would bet that, like me, this is why many others are interested in food law, whether they’re lawyers or not.


However, as my director Neal Fortin often reminds me, because an issue intersects with food does not make it food law. At the Michigan State University Institute for Food Laws & Regulations (IFLR) and College of Law Global Food Law Program (GFLP), food law is used in its traditional meaning to describe regulatory law that applies to food and the related areas of product liability and advertising law. Therefore, the core courses in our programs (available here and here) focus on U.S., international and transnational regulatory law of food.


That said, working for the IFLR and GFLP isn’t going to stop me from exploring all the agri-food systems policy issues I’m interested in. Because I have an interdisciplinary Ph.D. I like to draw on sociology, geography and political science, but I also consider many, many other disciplines important to understanding the operations and impacts of local, regional, and global agri-food systems.


My conceptual framework of the relevant disciplines thus looks like this:


agrifood law and policy venn v5.jpg
The only conceptual utility of this is to communicate how complex and messy the study of agri-food systems policy is if you want to incorporate every conceivable overlapping domain. It is a task that is far beyond any one scholar or discipline. Pragmatically, research must focus on one feature of agri-food systems while also considering the related domains and impacts.


So while you’ll see me blogging about whatever agri-food systems policy-related legal issues I find interesting, students of food law should note that I am often venturing outside the realm of traditional food law.


Meanwhile, if you want to learn some cutting-edge food law and get the chance to meet me in person (perhaps to explain why I’m doing it all wrong) you should register for the Food Law Current Issues Seminar and come visit East Lansing July 12-14.
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Michaela Oldfield
My name is Michaela Oldfield, and I am the Global Food Law research fellow with the Michigan State University Institute for Food Laws and Regulations and the Global Food Law Program. I have a J.D. from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Michigan State in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies. My dissertation research was on the Food Safety Modernization Act, but my interests cover a range of regulatory issues from field to fork to waste. I like spending my time thinking about how to design, adopt and implement regulations that balance the diversity of interests affected by food and agriculture policy (without being captured too much by special interests) and are flexible and dynamic to the constantly changing world around us (but without being dysfunctionally unpredictable). Luckily, that is much of what I will be doing here! Being the Global Food Law Research Fellow means I get to interact with food professionals, lawyers, academics and government officials to identify, understand and help educate people on the numerous ways food law and policy is evolving and impacting globalized agri-food systems.