To hear lawyer and national food policy leader Emily Broad Leib ’03 tell it, we’d do better to sniff our milk than study the sell-by date to determine whether it’s still OK to drink. And milk is hardly the only product to have confusing date labels.
“Every state has this mayhem of different laws that make no sense,” says Broad Leib. The language varies — there’s also Use by, Best by and Better if used by, to name a few — and the standards are inconsistent, tied more often to food freshness than safety, and not grounded in science. Consumers frequently misinterpret what the labels mean, to boot.
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“Sending food to landfills is bad for the environment. And if you’re throwing away food that’s still perfectly safe, it’s also a big waste of money for households,” she says. Plus, many states restrict or ban the sale or donation of foods that have passed their expiration dates — all of which contributes to one of Broad Leib’s oft-cited statistics: 40 percent of the food produced in the United States goes to waste each year.
Broad Leib has built a career — and helped build an entire field of law — out of untangling and advocating for improvements to the laws and policies that govern America’s food system.
Fortune and Food & Wine named her one of 2016’s Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink. An assistant clinical professor of law at Harvard, she is the founder and director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the first organization in the nation dedicated to these issues. Since 2015, she has organized an annual conference that’s helped raise the field’s profile with law students nationwide.
The Harvard Law graduate traces her interest in food policy to a fellowship in rural Mississippi, where she connected with a small group of farmers on the Delta. Despite being an agricultural region, food largely wasn’t being produced for human consumption; its residents — “a very vulnerable, low-income community” — struggled with limited options when it came to supermarkets and other sources of food. “There was this fledgling movement of farmers markets and they had a lot of questions,” she says.
“There weren’t any lawyers who knew about this space, but there were a whole lot of food producers and community members out there trying to set up structures to sell and buy healthier food, local food,” Broad Leib adds. “They needed someone to advise them and say: ‘Here are the things you need to know, here’s what you are allowed to sell, here’s where the laws in your state are tailored to you.’”
Out of her Mississippi work, which she continued through the Harvard clinic, came a how-to guide for growers looking to start and participate in farmers markets. She also helped the Mississippi Food Policy Council pass seven pieces of state law (one, for example, exempted food sold at farmers markets from being taxed). “My work has been a mix of helping people understand the laws, so they don’t have to hire an expensive law firm to figure them out, but also saying: ‘This law doesn’t make sense; I’ll bet if you get together and talk to some of the decision makers at your state house about why they’re putting a damper on this economic and health opportunity, then you can get this changed,’” Broad Leib says.
While many of her early projects were locally or state based, Broad Leib has shifted her focus during the past few years to also take on federal issues. In the past year she organized a group of faculty from law schools across the country to give input on the Farm Bill — omnibus legislation governing an array of agricultural and food programs — which is up for reauthorization this year.
Policy change at any level of government is “hard and uncertain” work, Broad Leib says. She points to her students as one of her greatest motivators. “A big part of my theory of change is about seeding a generation of energetic young lawyers who’ll go on to do this important work.
“Food law and policy is really a nascent field,” she adds, “which means there are ample opportunities for new solutions and brainstorming creative approaches.”
Which brings her back to those food labels. Broad Leib’s goal is a federal law mandating a simplified two-label approach, with all foods getting one or the other. And while she continues to press for change at that level, she notched a success last year partnering with other advocates to pass two pieces of related legislation in California — one to standardize expiration date labels, the other to expand and clarify liability protections for food donations.
“Shifting our focus to states and localities provides a different avenue to effect change,” she says. “And that still moves us closer to our ultimate goal of a sustainable food system that provides for all.”