What I Talk About When I Talk About Food Law


This post likely should have been my first Carly Dunster Law blog post, but I think it’s as important to write it now as it ever was. Whenever I tell someone that I practice food law (and no, it’s not “food law”; a proper term requires no quotations around it, ahem), there are the inevitable questions:  “A food lawyer? What do you do? Is it like:  these nachos are soggy, call Carly Dunster!” Or, still not what I’m trying to get at with the practice but a little better, “If I get sick at [insert fast food chain], should you be my first call?”

To be fair, I appreciate the questions:  as one of the only lawyers I know carving out a niche in the practice of food law (and articulating it from a values-based, sustainability perspective), it’s a chance for me to explain the motivations behind the work. So, because calling yourself a food lawyer seems to beg the question “But what does that mean?”, I thought it might be helpful to answer the question, at least broadly, on this here blog.

I started the practice primarily to act as a capacity-builder within the sustainable food sector. Working with the Toronto Underground Market had exposed me to a big, humming community of burgeoning food entrepreneurs who all had wonderful ideas. They were also all, for the most part, mightily confused. They started asking me questions. A lot of questions. Questions like:  If you want to sell popsicles from a bike, where can you make the popsicles, who can make them, where can you sell them, what do you figure out first? If you want to sell a new food product in a retail space, how do you package it, what does the package need to say, and how do you know if your commercial kitchen is really a commercial kitchen? If you want to start a food truck, what kinds of permits and licenses do you need? If I want to butcher meat as part of my business, can you help me navigate the three-thousand (approximately) page Food Safety and Quality Act, 2001, and the Regulation entitled, in a deceptively simple manner, Meat? How does one start a food co-operative? Do we have a right to food, according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Would you like to help me fix street food in Toronto, or work towards establishing an Ontario cottage food law?

In short, I get a whole lot of questions that all involve an assessment of various pieces of legislation that govern the food that we eat and all of the little details and mammoth undertakings that have to be figured out before that food gets on our plates and into our mouths. And then there are all of the other pieces of legislation, and policies, that affect those laws; I hang out a lot more at City Hall than I used to and have had to familiarize myself with how municipal decision-making happens, for instance. In order to help people build sustainable, viable businesses, either for-profit or non-profit, I also provide some of the regular nuts and bolts legal help that most new entities need:  incorporation, contract-drafting, and related labour and employment advice, to name a few.

The food policy aspect of food law is very prominent in the practice; many of the projects that I’m a part of involve policy development components. The goal is not just to help one individual, but to develop better frameworks so that sustainable innovation in food is fostered and nurtured, enabling a more dynamic food landscape, and ultimately increasing food security for all Canadians. Sounds lofty, but that’s what it’s about at the core.

I am constantly surprised by who reaches out for my assistance, or what kind of issues I get to tackle in this job. Connecting with others who practice this type of law, namely in the US, has been rewarding and thrilling. And in the Fall of 2011, I read an article entitled “Wanted:  Food Lawyers” on the National Resources Defence Council Staff Blog. It confirmed my deepest and most optimistic suspicions:  issues like sustainability standards, food equity, and scalability in our food systems all need attention. The article effectively concluded that food law is the new environmental law. I couldn’t agree more.

Also, I read an article earlier today about how Oklahoma State University wants to patent a steak – or, more accurately, patent an algorithm for butchering a cow. I kid you not. I bring this up because the practice of food law, and what it can entail, is always evolving. So fine, make your jokes, (This pasta is past al dente!  Get that food lawyer on the phone!), but in the meantime, I’ll work towards carving out a niche in an area of law that impacts every single one of us at least a few times a day.


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