Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Big News
18 February 2010, 12:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Well, it’s been quiet here for almost eighteen months. I apologize, and I wanted to break the silence with some big news that is going to a) bring back the lawforfood blog, and b) change the shape of local agriculture in New England.

Announcing (or rather, pre-announcing) Law for Food, the firm.

Together with a partner, I’m launching a law firm to support a lot of what I used to talk about here. It’s a tremendous risk, as well as a tremendous opportunity. More than that, it’s why I decided to go to law school in the first place. I wanted to work for a place like Law for Food, but I couldn’t find one, so I and my partner are making one for ourselves.

In the next few months, this site will make its way over to its new home at as we launch the firm, and the website. Stay tuned for more!

Planning ahead…
5 August 2008, 12:26 pm
Filed under: The Long Now, Uncategorized

This really is the way to run a culture.

What have you done to plan for the very distant future?

Turf War
22 July 2008, 12:46 pm
Filed under: Energy Costs, Food and Energy, Regulation, Uncategorized

More on Raw Milk in Pennsylvania tomorrow. Today I found very interesting the Turf Wars article in this weeks’ New Yorker. It’s been my intuition that as energy and food costs rise, particularly if the economy begins to really slip, we’re going to see a great deal of suburban and urban yard converted into “victory garden” use, but my fear is that these will go the way of the original victory gardens: that is, they will exist until economic conditions enable our return to irresponsibility. Of course, the the emergency may wind up being rather longer than we think.

Tangential to this, Matt Yglesias has a good bit of writing about offshore drilling (which is intended to increase the supply of energy) as compared to high-density mixed-use zoning (which is intended to decrease the demand for energy).

Short Beer Pints: Do We Need A Law?
13 June 2008, 3:33 pm
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Food Costs and Prices, Portioning, Uncategorized

According to The Wall Street Journal, as beer prices rise in response to the rising costs of raw inputs, bars and restaurants are serving less than a pint of beer by substituting thick-bottomed 14 oz. glasses and by pouring more head than they used to. Jeff Alworth, of the Honest Pint Project, has more details.

To me, this problem presents an opportunity to think about the sorts of problems that regulation by the state is able to solve and the sorts of problems that are best left to actors in the market without legal intervention. I can think of three basic approaches:

  1. This is a simple false advertising problem, and can be handled by the existing body of tort and consumer protection law.
  2. Regulation is necessary because this is a harm that will not be adequately addressed either by false advertising tort law, nor by market action.
  3. Little or no government action is necessary because, to the extent that this is really a problem, people will stop going to establishments that short them on beer.

I think that the first position is the weakest, simply because of how expensive it is to bring an action in tort. It’s certainly not worth it in this sort of a case, and if I were a manager I would shrug off any customer who threatened to sue me for false advertising over a few ounces of beer. On the other hand, I would be careful that my state’s Attorney General didn’t get too many complaints about the practice, since in many (if not all) states the A.G. has a consumer protection division that handles exactly this sort of problem. However, the problem only exists as long as the bar is selling their beer in “pints” so a simple change of menu text would probably protect the company. That’s where the thick-bottomed 14 oz. glasses become useful to the bar: they look like pints, but as long as you’re not calling them “pints” you’re probably safe here.

The second option probably has some legs: I could imagine a regulation requiring that beer be sold in glasses with a line etched in them at the 16 oz. mark, similar to the way it is sold in England (although in England, if I’m not mistaken, the etching is of a 19.2 oz. Imperial pint). This has some merit, as it allows the patron a ready way to determine whether he is being ripped off — he can see if he’s getting a short pour. Also, a glass that were etched at a smaller amount but marked as a pint would be a pretty good badge of fraud, making a much easier private suit.

I think that the third option, although interesting, has little merit in the present case because because the patron will bear larger costs in policing the sizes of the pint he is served than the benefits he will get in getting the right amount of beer. The costs of policing are fairly fixed for all sorts of transactions: you have to verify that you are getting what you think you are getting, and if you aren’t, you have to bring it up with the vendor; you incur a social cost for bringing it up, and quite possibly another social cost for even policing it in the first place — it isn’t terribly cool to pour your beer into a measuring glass. The benefits, in this case, are probably no more than three ounces of beer. I have trouble imagining that beer prices will rise to a level such that the price of three ounces of beer is worth policing one’s pour amount.

It is difficult for me to see where the efficient outcome lies. It may be true that when you’ve paid your five dollars for a pint, you should expect a full pint and not just 14 oz., but what if, in order to stay in business, a bar would have to charge $5.75 for the full pint where it only charges an even $5.00 for the 14 oz. beer? What if the bar has determined that $5.00 is the best price-point for a beer, and has had to adjust its portioning accordingly, rather than keeping portioning the same and raising the price? What if people buy more beer by volume at $5.00 / beer than they do at $5.75 / beer due to perceptions about how much money they are spending? None of our answers to these questions justifies calling a 14oz. glass a pint: that’s false advertising. But maybe a bar should be able to sell beer in any amounts it wants.

Readers, I crave your thoughts. Is this a problem that regulation can efficiently solve? What sort of regulation? What would an efficient outcome look like?

The Road Less Traveled: Driving, Retail, and Energy Costs

Not that it’s anything new, but the New York Times has an article about how rising gas prices are affecting rural populations the most. From the article:

Mr. Clark and members of his work crew spoke of the big and little changes that higher gas prices have brought. The extra dollars spent at the pump mean electric bills are going unpaid and macaroni is replacing meat at supper. Donations to church are being put off, and video rentals are now unaffordable.

Cleveland Whiteside, who works with Mr. Clark and used to commute 30 miles a day, said his Jeep Cherokee was repossessed last month, because “I paid so much for gas to get to work I couldn’t pay my payments anymore.” His employer, Larry Clanton, has lent him a pickup truck so he can get to work.

Signs of pain and adaptation because of the cost of gas are everywhere. Local fried chicken restaurants are closing because people are eating out less. At the hardware store here, sales have plummeted to $30 a day from $250 a day a month ago.

I realize that this is only tangentially related to food policy, but it ties into other policy arrangements that have had an impact on the way we order our lives in the U.S., and relates to some of the same issues as food production and retail. Specifically, the rise of the strip mall and commuter culture. Author and researcher Stacey Mitchell, in her book Big-Box Swindle, notes that:

As corporate chains have come to dominate retauling, Americans are logging more road miles each year for shopping and errands…. It’s not that we’re taking more shopping trips, but rather that more of those trips are by automobile and the journeys are longer. As the chains build ever-bigger stores, each outlet depends on a greater number of households spread over a wider geographic area. Thus the distance between home and store continues to grow….

Driving has become less about choice and more about necessity. In much of America, walking or taking public transit to the store is no longer an option. Most families have moved into suburban subdivisions that, by virtue of both zoning codes and convention, are strictly residential and lack the small neighborhood shops common in older communities. Not surprisingly, families that live in the suburbs rely much more on their cars than those who live in traditional neighborhoods….

Corporate chains have a strong preference for locations and store designs that encourage and even necessitate traveling by car…. [T]he [very] nature of the shopping experience necessitates driving. Picking up a few things after work every day — which is fast and easy if you have a few good small stores in the neighborhood — is not at all convenient if you have to navigate a superstore the size of a football field and then wait in line behind families buying a week’s worth of supplies.

What does any of this have to do with food law? As I have said, very little, except that the rise of this driving culture and the consumer tendencies it fosters have contributed strongly to the conditions we face today. As big-box retailers cause smaller, independent stores to go out of business, consumers purchase more and more of their goods at the big-box stores. Since big-box stores save administrative costs by having a single purchaser buy an entire category or subcategory of products for a region of stores, it is really unrealistic for big-box retailers to buy locally produced goods such as food, even if they wanted to. (To say nothing of the fact that, if they did, they would quickly drive local producers out of business due to the concessions they are able to demand.)

The system is able to perpetuate itself because most people own cars and think little of driving 20 miles to grocery-shop. Thanks to the rising price of gas, all of that is about to change.

Blogroll Update
9 November 2007, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve added Ruhlman, and via Ruhlman, Wolly Pigs, a blog by a man raising pigs for custom slaughter. I’ve also lately been enjoying Becks & Posh, and I can’t believe I didn’t already have Serious Eats on the roll.


Probiotics, from the Dept. of Breaking Stuff, and then (Maybe) Fixing it.

From the Dairy Reporter, a story on probiotic dairy products intended to replenish the sorts of gastrointestinal flora that we used to get from food. Money quote:

[Walker] said that measures intended to improve public health, such as food pasteurisation and sterilisation and use of antibiotics means that there is a decreased exposure to micoorganisms – leading to a gap in colonisation and weaker defences against disease.

First of all, while this research doesn’t surprise me, I am a bit bothered by the fact that Nestlé is profiting off of mandatory pasturization and sterilization of food.

The sequence of events seems to go like this: unpasteurized foods contain a great deal of bacteria, most of which is harmless. Exposure to these bacteria would promote the immune system. (Note: I don’t have a scientific background, but my understanding is that these bacteria compete for resources with harmful bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which means that harmful bacteria wind up fighting a two-front war against both the immune system and these other bacteria. This means that the immune system doesn’t get overwhelmed by harmful bacteria. Any biologists care to comment?)

As it is now, a great many foods are pasturized or sterilized, either by regulation or voluntarily, and do not expose the consumer to these harmless bacteria. Which means that consumers’ immune systems get weaker. Thank god there’s Nestlé to put back in the stuff that was in the food to begin with.

I am reminded of something that Ari used to talk about when I worked at Zingerman’s. He was presenting on raw milk cheeses and he said that pasteurization was a bad idea is because it enables producers to lower their production standards, because they know that any bacteria that get into the milk will be cooked when they pasturize it. Pasturization destroys accountability because the dairy co-op or factory cheesemaker doesn’t know and doesn’t care whose milk might have been dirty: they can put it all into the same big vat and heat it up and it doesn’t matter.

Only, turns out it might matter.