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Food Law

PSJD Career Guide

This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of Food Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career and resources to further research this rewarding field.

This guide includes content courtesy of Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Harvard Food Law Society. The information in this guide was researched and prepared by Emily Broad Leib, Director and Allli Condra, Clinical Fellow in the Harvard Food Law and Policy Division at the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, Harvard Law School and Cristina Almendarez, Grant Barbosa, Rachel Clark, Kate Schmidt, Erin Schwartz, and Lauren Sidner from the Harvard Food Law Society.

What is Food Law?

Despite food’s central role in our lives, it did not garner much attention from law and policy quarters until somewhat recently. From nutritional guidelines to food safety regulations to trade agreements, law and policy decisions play a role in determining how food is grown, processed, transported, and consumed. Attorneys who practice food law facilitate the operations of the food industry by advising clients about topics such as regulatory compliance, intellectual property, and trade. However, the growth of our food system has also produced new problems that can be dealt with at the legal and policy levels, creating many new and exciting roles for attorneys. With the growing obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics and a widening gap in food access between those who can afford fresh food and those relegated to “food deserts,” those with law and policy expertise are increasingly called upon to identify and pilot solutions to improve the food system.

Whether one desires to work in a law firm, for government, for a nonprofit, or in academia, lawyers interested in improving the food system will find many opportunities to apply their legal and policy skills to topics as far?reaching as nutrition and global health, intellectual property, trade, environmental justice, and human rights.

Areas of Specialization

To guide your search for the organization, job, or internship that suits your particular interests, we have created a list of “areas of specialization” in food law:

  • Agriculture/Agricultural Law
  • Animal Welfare
  • Biotechnology and GMOs
  • Community Development
  • Disaster Relief
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Environment/Sustainability
  • Finance/Microfinance
  • Food Advertising
  • Food Justice
  • Food Labeling
  • Food Marketing
  • Food Safety
  • Food Studies
  • Food Systems
  • General Legal
  • Hunger/Food Security
  • International Labor
  • Land Use/Conservation
  • Legal Advocacy/Litigation
  • Nutrition and Diet-Related Disease Policy
  • Public Health Research
  • Rural Issues
  • School Food
  • Trade
  • Urban Issues

Where can I practice Food Law?

Universities

Whether you are looking to work as a researcher or faculty member, or to pursue another degree, universities are at the forefront of research and activity around the food system and food policy. Working at a university department or program focused on food systems provides a wide range of opportunities in the field, ranging from food law and policy, to food science, sustainable agriculture, anthropology, and marketing. Because food policy is still a relatively new field, there may also be more job opportunities in universities that are starting to focus on food systems than there are in the other institutions covered in this guide. The cooperation between different university programs and departments makes academia an advantageous choice for staying at the forefront of emerging food law and policy issues, and the academic setting enables attorneys to engage in scholarly activity while undertaking projects and making a real?world impact.

University settings can also offer attorneys the opportunity to take an interdisciplinary approach to food systems issues, allowing them to combine their legal skills with other areas of academic and professional research, in areas as diverse as public health and nutrition, environmental impacts of agriculture, sustainability, governance, or regulatory change. Finally, working at a university department or program focused on food systems can provide the opportunity to take additional courses or enroll in a graduate program with a food system focus.

Government Agencies

A range of different government agencies impact food law and policy issues at the federal, state, and local levels. Within these agencies, attorneys have the opportunity to either conduct research to drive new government policies or serve a more traditional legal role as legal counsel for a specific agency. Working in a government agency may allow you to take advantage of unique opportunities to influence and make policy by: drafting regulatory guidelines on topics such as nutrition or diet; conducting research programs to inform private and public decision?making on policy issues involving food, agriculture, natural resources, and rural development; shaping food safety education, policies, and regulations; and overseeing food benefit program eligibility and distribution. For attorneys who seek more traditional legal work, these agencies also have legal counsel offices that provide legal advice and represent the agencies in court proceedings and administrative hearings; participate in civil and criminal cases; draft pleadings, motions, and briefs; and take part in discovery and trials.

At the federal level, the primary agencies tasked with food policy duties are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (including, but not limited to, the Food and Nutrition Service) and the Department of Health and Human Services (which houses the Food and Drug Administration). Agencies such as the Department of Commerce, Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development allow attorneys to develop food policy at the international level. At the state level, many government agencies offer employment opportunities in food policy. State agencies have different names across states, but the main players in food policy generally include: the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Economic Development, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Education. Attorneys may also find many opportunities to work on food policy at the local level, through working with city council officials, the city board of health, or in the office of the city’s food policy director (if the city is lucky enough to have one!).

Non-Governmental Organizations & Research Institutes

Non-governmental agencies, research institutes, and nonprofit organizations in the fields of sustainable food, the environment, and human rights provide unique services in the food law and policy context. Generally, non?governmental organizations dedicate their work to specific issues or sets of issues within the food system, including: sustainable food systems, local and urban agriculture, farmers’ rights, school nutrition, food safety, hunger and poverty, food justice, climate change, and international trade. They also tend to be divided between regional local, national, and international organizations.

Within these organizations, attorneys may conduct conventional legal work such as challenging harmful food production technologies and promoting sustainable alternatives, litigating civil or criminal cases against food system actors, and lending legal support to various sustainable agriculture and food safety constituencies. However, attorneys working at these organizations may also serve in less traditional legal roles and have the opportunity to influence policy. For example, they might coordinate grassroots organizing efforts to unite various food system stakeholders to create a more sustainable and accessible food system. They may also disseminate nutrition and health information to educate and empower communities to seek policy change. In your internship/career search, you should investigate nonprofit organizations operating within the specific fields and geographic areas of interest to you.

International Organizations & Agencies

Various international agencies work in the realm of food policy and play important roles in confronting the modern challenges of hunger, poverty, climate change, resource degradation, and population growth. For example, international agencies such as the World Food Programme provide direct food aid to people who cannot obtain the food necessary to lead active and healthy lives. Other agencies support farmers and offer them education about sustainable growing practices and organic agriculture. Generally, these agencies identify and analyze international, national, and local policies in support of improved food security and nutrition, with an emphasis on low?income countries and undernourished populations. These agencies may work on policy issues at the local/regional, national, or international level to achieve structural change or they may operate on the ground to strengthen the capacity of local institutions by contributing to food systems research, education, and expertise.

For attorneys interested in more traditional legal work, many international organizations need lawyers to research national and international laws, draft legal memos, and write country comparison reports. One option for those interested in this type of work is to look at the legal departments of the United Nations organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, where lawyers provide legal advisory services to the organizations’ members, assist in the formulation of treaties, publish legal studies, and maintain databases of national legislation and international agreements. Most international organizations also employ attorneys to work on policy topics, such as researching and advocating for international, national, and local polices that improve food security, nutrition, and agricultural practices.

Fellowship & Grant-giving Organizations

One alternative way to get involved in food policy is to apply for a grant or a fellowship that would help fund your work. If you have some background knowledge about food policy or if you know exactly what you want to concentrate on, fellowships and grants are a great way to get targeted funding for a specific project or idea. Some foundations place fellows with partner organizations such as the International Food Policy Research Institute, World Food Programme, or United States Department of Agriculture, where fellows combine opportunities to work on the ground and at the policy level, forming bridges between local communities and decision?makers. Other foundations award grants to candidates who propose projects related to the foundation’s mission. In either case, fellows or grantees engage in a broad range of activities around program development, outreach, organizing, and advocacy projects. As the food policy field grows and gains momentum, you should be able to find even more opportunities to apply for—and receive—grants and fellowships in this field.

Law Firms

For attorneys who want to practice law in a firm, opportunities to focus on food law have been steadily increasing as firms adapt to meet the growing demands of their clients. Firms often combine food law with other practice areas such as agricultural, alcoholic beverage, and/or pharmaceutical law, and offer clients transactional, regulatory, and litigation services. As sourcing and consumer markets spread around the globe, these practices have simultaneously expanded to the international level.

Lawyers in these practice areas represent a broad range of clients across all sectors of the food industry, including producers, retailers, suppliers, and distributors, and handle regulatory and other legal matters from corporate governance and planning through the execution of contracts and transactions. They regularly advise on health and safety topics, products liability issues, intellectual property enforcement, insurance matters, and various aspects of food labeling. Lawyers also provide food system clients tailored advice on product safety, product recall, crisis management, and enforcement actions. Attorneys may defend food industry clients against criminal charges from alleged violations of food and drug regulations or represent consumers in class action lawsuits based on issues such as misleading labeling practices. They may also represent clients before administrative proceedings at the Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, or United States Department of Agriculture.

Consulting & Consultancy Firms

Consulting is another field in which agriculture and food lawyers can play a role. Government and non? governmental organizations often hire consulting firms to conduct research and provide policy advice, which can help shape food law and policy in many parts of the world.

Most consulting firms have unique, alternative positions for both new and experienced lawyers and also provide valuable services to the world’s largest producers. To that end, one can get involved and provide his or her unique perspective on emerging issues in the food system, both domestically and internationally. One major advantage in joining a consultancy firm is global mobility; it is not uncommon for a consultant to relocate to several countries during the course of his or her career.

Resources

This section includes a group of listservs that may help to link attorneys with various food policy institutions and organizations that are working to improve the food system and that may help you identify other targeted opportunities:

Category: Explore Your Career Options

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