Exclusive Interview with the Director of Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic

It's important to think about what we eat and the impact our choices have on animals, the environment, and our health. Members of the public frequently start and sign petitions about the food system, but it's sometimes difficult to get a deeper understanding of issues like food waste and factory farming.

We asked an expert, Emily Broad Leib, to share some insights with the Change.org community. Emily is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law, Director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, and Deputy Director of the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. She knows what she's talking about, so check out this interview.

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Pulin: What is the goal of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic?

Emily: The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) was established in 2010 to address the health, environmental, and economic consequences of the laws and policies that govern our food system while educating students about these issues. FLPC’s work is focused in four main initiatives: food access and obesity prevention, sustainable food production, food waste, and food policy community advocacy. Within each of these areas, we have a range of projects with clients that include nonprofit organizations, food policy councils, coalitions, and government officials at all levels of government.

The laws that govern the food system are extremely complex, and often not structured in ways that promote healthy or sustainable outcomes. FLPC helps clients and partners understand these laws so they know how to operate within them, as well as find ways that changing the laws can support a better future for the food system.

Pulin: What are some of the most important food policy issues in America right now?

Emily: One of the most crucial food system issues, and one of the biggest priority areas for FLPC, is food waste. Nearly 40% of the food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, and this waste presents a grave threat to our economy, our health, and our environment. Food waste is the single biggest item in landfills and a massive contributor to methane, a potent greenhouse gas. All the negative impacts of our food system are amplified when we waste so much food. Addressing food waste has the potential to positively impact the environment while getting food to those in need. Redistributing just 30 percent of all the food lost in the United States could feed every food-insecure American their total diet.

Over the past four years, FLPC has been at the forefront of legal and policy research on reducing food waste in the United States. We have conducted research on various policy options to reduce waste, provided input on the drafting of federal and state laws (the proposed Federal Food Date Labeling Act and the proposed Federal Food Recovery Act) to address the numerous policy and administrative barriers to reducing food waste, and convened leaders to discuss strategies to increase food recovery.

In the past year, FLPC published Consumer Perceptions of Date Labels: A National Survey and Leftovers for Livestock: A Legal Guide for Using Excess Food as Animal Feed; testified at the first-ever U.S. House Agriculture Committee Hearing on food waste; supported multiple states in better navigating regulating food recovery laws, including Massachusetts and Connecticut; and hosted a national conference with over 350 leaders discussing food waste and food recovery.

But, food waste is just one of many issues. Our food system developed over time to prioritize food that is cheap and abundant, but it has negative impacts on health and the environment. There are many possible solutions within law and policy and other arenas, such as the private sector and consumer behavior change. FLPC is hard at work across a range of topics, from pushing for the creation of a national food strategy to leading a consortium of programs at six law schools across the country to analyze the U.S. farm bill in hopes of finding solutions that can make the food system more healthy, sustainable, and equitable.

Emily

Pulin: How do you think consumers can have the biggest impact on the food system with what they buy and also how they engage with elected decision makers?

Emily: There are ample opportunities for consumers to help improve the U.S. food system.

First, consumers can make a huge difference in the market by virtue of their purchasing power, and the past few years have seen marked changes in business practices because of changing consumer demand. Asking what is in your food and where it came from, and making the decision to spend extra money (if you have that luxury) to buy better items can impact the market. Even though consumers have to pay a premium for healthy or sustainable products right now, over time these items will be more widely available and thus more affordable thanks to millions of consumers pushing the market.

Consumers also have the opportunity to make the biggest impact in food waste reduction. Of the 40% of food wasted across the supply chain nationally, 45% of that waste occurs in the home. We will only see major reductions in food waste once consumers change their habits. There are many ways to do this—make a plan and buy only what you are going to use; find ways to use up extra food at the end of the week; and embrace imperfect looking fruits and vegetables.

I also want to draw attention to food waste because of confusion over the “sell by” or “use by” date labels. These dates are generally indicators of freshness and quality, not safety, yet nearly 90% of consumers say they throw past-date food away because of safety concerns.

We worked with Senator Richard Blumenthal and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree this past May to introduce the Food Date Labeling Act, which helps to create coherent, standardized date label language by simplifying date labels to two well-defined options: a quality date, indicated by “best if used by” and, for the very few foods where it’s applicable, a safety date indicated by “expires on.” If the bill does pass, it will be a big deal because consumers may be more likely to take these labels seriously if they are clear and coherent. Until then, use your senses, like appearance, smell, and taste to guide whether you throw food away, not the misleading date labels.

Pulin: What steps has the food industry made to give you hope things will improve and what are challenges you see to making those changes happen more quickly?

Emily: In our work, we’ve seen the most movement on efforts to reduce food waste. Wal-mart has been a great partner over the past few years in our work on reducing food waste. I’m very excited by their recent decision to require suppliers of their private label Great Value line of products to use the same, standardized date label, “Best if used by,” for non-perishable foods. This phrase emerged from various consumer surveys, including our own, as the most clear to communicate that it is an indicator of quality, rather than safety. Before Wal-Mart took this step, it was really easy for companies to say it was too hard to standardize labels. But if Wal-Mart, one of the largest food retailers in country can do it, so can smaller food manufacturers and retailers. We’re also working with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute on trying to make date labels standard across products and companies. More work remains to be done to reduce the amount of healthy, wholesome food going to waste, and we hope to see more companies come to the table around this.

I’ve also been encouraged to see movement in companies trying to find ways to make their products more sustainable and healthier, whether it means reducing antibiotics in meat production, increasing voluntary labeling to promote transparency, or reformulating products to use healthier ingredients and reducing sugar and sodium.

Pulin: Where can members of the public go to learn more about your work and how to support it?

Emily: I would suggest starting with our website. We have a number of reports and resources in our publication library, and our blog has great pieces written by FLPC and our clinical students. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter . Next, I would recommend visiting notreallyexpired.com, where you can watch the documentary film we released earlier this year on food waste and date labels, and view related resources. Lastly, I’d recommend visiting the sites of two networks we’ve helped to launch. One is the Food Law Student Network. While it’s meant to connect food law student around the country, it contains a lot of introductory information about the issues around food laws and policy. The other is the Academy of Food Law and Policy, a forum to connect the individuals and institutions involved in teaching and scholarship in the field of Food Law & Policy.

Pulin: Anything else you'd like to add?

Emily: I would strongly encourage change.org readers who care about our food system to support Congress in its effort to pass stronger food legislation. Whether it is the Food Date Labeling Act, the Food Recovery Act (broader food recovery legislation also introduced in the past year), or another piece of legislation that aims to make the food system healthier and more sustainable, let your representatives know that you care about the food system and support action to make it stronger!

Image from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree

Pulin Modi is a senior campaigner at Change.org