As we’ve explored the sustainability of red meat thus far, we’ve framed it as an individual choice. We’ve weighed the costs and benefits of how eating meat impacts the environment or our personal health and how it aligns with our values. But we have yet to think about how larger social forces impact our dietary choices. The law impacts what food is most available to us, how nutritious it is, and how it is grown or raised. It not only influences the choices that we make, but it influences what choices we have.

Students in the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School delve into these topics in depth. I asked Ona Balkus and Alli Condra, both fellows in the clinic, for some insight into how the legal system in the United States impacts our dietary choices. Read below to discover some of the surprising ways that the law determines what we as individuals can make or grow from our homes or eat in restaurants and schools, as well as the ways it regulates (or doesn’t regulate) large animal farms. Balkus and Condra also explain how legislation can encourage better meat production practices.

To learn more about these issues, visit the upcoming conference at Harvard Law School called “The Meat We Eat” on April 4. Event Information

OFS: How does law influence the American diet?

Food Law Fellows: There are a myriad of ways that the U.S. legal system impacts the way we eat. In fact, Harvard Law School offers both a Food Law and Policy Seminar and a Food Law and Policy Clinic for law students interested in getting both academic and practical experience in this field. While this topic could fill a whole textbook (and has!), here are just a few examples of national, state, and local laws that impact the American diet:

  1. FEDERAL: The most recent version of the Farm Bill, passed by Congress in February 2014, provides funding for SNAP benefits (food stamps) for many Americans. The Farm Bill also addresses subsidy programs for commodity crops (this has been in the news a lot recently), allocates funding to help beginning farmers, and strengthens programs that support the development of local and regional agriculture.
  2. STATE: In addition to federal laws, there are state laws that impact our diet. Many states, including Massachusetts, have increased the nutrition standards for school lunches above the national standards, to make sure students are getting nutritious food to help them learn and excel in school. States also have the authority to decide whether residents can produce low-risk foods (such as breads, muffins, and granola) in their home kitchens (called cottage food laws).
  3. LOCAL: Local laws in our towns and cities also influence our diet. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has increased the number of street carts selling healthy foods in areas that do not have grocery stores. The City has also banned trans fats in restaurants, and was one of the first cities to require calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus. In Boston, the city recently updated its zoning laws to allow for urban farming in any neighborhood in the city. This will increase the amount of healthy, fresh produce available for Bostonians.

OFS: Does law in the United States generally favor the meat industry?

Food Law Fellows: It is important to first note that there are many livestock producers that use sustainable, responsible practices on their farms. There are also extremely large farms, sometimes called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which use different methods than smaller farms for raising their animals. There are some laws that benefit CAFOs, but perhaps more importantly, there are many places where the law falls short to adequately regulate CAFOs’ commercial practices.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration has refused to limit the use of antibiotics in livestock feed, even though there is consensus among national and international health groups that these antibiotics are harmful for human health. These antibiotics also enable companies that use them to keep animals in conditions where otherwise the animals would get sick and would not be able to be used for meat. Additionally, the Supreme Court has limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate CAFO’s as strictly as it has tried to. Thus CAFOs often pollute nearby waterways, which has negative consequences for the wildlife and plants around the operations, as well as for the health of the surrounding communities.

Laws can be used to incentivize behavior and practices that we, as a society, want to encourage (not just to prevent practices that we dislike). Providing support for smaller-scale sustainable meat production, and strengthening the local and regional meat economy, is a great way to counter-balance the industrialized meat production industry that currently dominates the market.  

OFS: Do you think we are currently lacking any regulation on the meat industry in the United States?

Food Law Fellows: We touched upon this in the answer above, but the legal regime for regulating meat production in the United States is lacking in that that laws do not adequately support the development of sustainable, smaller-scale meat producers. Laws can be used to incentivize behavior and practices that we, as a society, want to encourage (not just to prevent practices that we dislike). Providing support for smaller-scale sustainable meat production, and strengthening the local and regional meat economy, is a great way to counter-balance the industrialized meat production industry that currently dominates the market.