The Food Law Lab

The 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.

Academic Approach

Despite the prominence of food issues in current popular culture and policy debates, there is a comparative dearth of scholarship on food issues in legal academia. Historically, food law has typically been taught as a subset of Food and Drug Law, a course heavily focused on federal regulation. Partially as a consequence, there are still relatively few curricular offerings at most law schools and little modern scholarship being produced. The Food Law Lab hopes to remedy both these failings by creating the leading academic center for legal research on food that, beyond federal regulation, addresses the “law of everyday life” – or the regulations and issues that directly affect the dinner table experience. Although the Lab focuses on legal problems, it supports a research agenda that is truly interdisciplinary, blending law with history, anthropology, philosophy, social science, and the humanities. The Lab fosters a diverse range of methodological perspectives, incorporating aspects of culture and norms surrounding food. We will explore the ways in which these variances manifest themselves – for example, production and consumption of one animal as food is uncontroversial in one culture, while giving rise to potential legal claims in another. In this way, culture is sometimes enforced through legal and non-legal norms regarding food content, production, and labeling.

Areas of Study

The Lab’s initial work will focus mainly on three current issue areas in the law of food:  (1) Institutional Food, (2) Food Safety and Food Quality, and (3) Food Information Awareness.

(1)   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 the nations’ 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.

(2)   Food Safety & Food Quality considers the relationship between food safety and food quality; we will approach the legal challenges and solutions affiliated with managing the 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 the government regulators have strong incentives to favor safety. This decision process may be sensible, but it also has significant long-term consequences for what we eat and the way we eat it.

(3)   Food Information Awareness. 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. As part of the Food Facts initiative, the Food Law Lab and the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy at UCLA are co-sponsoring a conference on transparency in the food system in the Fall of 2014. 


Harvard University
Center for the Environment

Address: 26 Oxford Street, 4th Floor, Cambridge
Phone: (617) 495-0368

Connect with us

Follow HUCE to stay updated on energy and the environment at Harvard and beyond.

Subscribe to our mailing list