GMOs, FSMA and menu labeling are all hot topics right now in the world of food policy and regulation. To further discuss the latest updates,TraceGains‘ Chelsey Davis sat down with Baylen J. Linnekin, Executive Director for Keep Food Legal, Adjunct Professor at George Mason School of Law, and Columnist at Reason, to explore his take on a few of these key issues.
Linnekin is a licensed attorney and is the founder and executive director of Keep Food Legal Foundation, a Washington, DC-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that promotes food freedom of choice—the right of every American to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of their own choosing. He serves as an adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School and an adjunct faculty member at American University, where his teaching focuses largely on contemporary food-policy issues. Along with faculty from Harvard Law School and UCLA Law School, Linnekin is one of six founding board members of the new Academy of Food Law & Policy. He is currently writing his first book, which focuses on the ways that government policies often thwart sustainable food practices, for Island Press. He is also serving as an expert witness in an ongoing First Amendment food-labeling lawsuit.
What are your thoughts on the final rules for menu and vending labeling that are set to be enforced by December 2015 (2016 for vending)? Do you think it will help fight obesity?
Linnekin: From both a theoretical and practical standpoint, mandatory menu- and vending-labeling is a lousy idea. Looking forward—from a theoretical perspective—even the chief architect of the country’s first menu-labeling law, former New York City health department head Thomas Farley, admits menu labeling “won’t stop the obesity epidemic[.]” Practically, we know Farley is right, as study after study has found that mandatory menu labeling doesn’t lead consumers to choose lower-calorie options, and may even cause them to choose options with more calories.
What is your take on “natural” labeling and advertising claims? Do you think things like this should be regulated, or better yet, more specific in regulation?
Linnekin: This is properly a matter for the courts. If someone believes they’ve been harmed by an “all natural” label—e.g., they were tricked into buying something by what they believe is a misleading label—then they should sue. The FDA should stay out of it. Instead, the FDA should permit any food label so long as it contains the required information—including an accurate list of ingredients—and doesn’t contain statements that are demonstrably false (fraudulent).
You talk about GMO labeling in a few of your recently published articles. If Congress were to pass a mandatory GMO-labeling law, what do you think would be the immediate ramifications to food manufacturers?
Linnekin: Mandatory GMO-labeling laws are bad for food manufacturers and consumers. Costs would rise for both thanks to new regulatory requirements and, for the former, threats of lawsuits. Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be any stomach in Congress for passing a mandatory GMO-labeling law.
Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say things like, our “food freedom is under attack”?
Linnekin: I define food freedom as an individual’s right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of his or her own choosing. Federal, state, and local government officials—both elected and working in regulatory agencies—are threatening this individual right. Many cities restrict a person’s right to plant a garden in their own yard, or to share food with the homeless and less fortunate. States have banned foods and food ingredients—from foie gras to Four Loko to raw milk. The federal government subsidizes farmers who grow some crops (i.e., corn and soy) and bans farmers from growing others (e.g., hemp). And it’s cracking down on foods that contain salt, caffeine, trans fats, and other ingredients. The list goes on. If the government were to restrict our speech—what comes out of our mouths—in the same way it does what we put into our mouths, we wouldn’t hesitate to say that free speech is under attack. That’s why I say food freedom is under attack.
With so many food recalls that occurred during 2014 and in previous years, how would you suggest food manufacturers prevent these issues while also not requiring additional regulation?
Linnekin: The U.S. food supply is remarkably safe. That’s thanks in very large part to the nation’s farmers and food manufacturers. The threat of harming consumers and consumer confidence—not to mention the lawsuits and calls for increased regulations that arise when such harm occurs—should be incentive enough for food companies to seek to prevent these issues from arising. But not all food regulations—even newer ones—are bad. I support the FDA’s mandatory recall authority under FSMA for many reasons, including because I think it makes lots of sense given the FDA’s original mission to protect food safety.