Top 10 Legal Victories for the Food Movement in 2014

In my ongoing attempt to shine a light on the critical role that lawyers play in the food movement, here are just a few examples of legal victories this past year. As this list demonstrates, we need lawyers to both proactively change the law, and to defend against legal challenges. This was an especially good year for legal victories. So thank a lawyer!

Defending Laws Against Big Food Bullying

California’s Fois Gras Ban Upheld: Out-of-state foie gras producers sued the State of California claiming its law to ban the product violated interstate commerce. Why it’s important: A state should be able to decide when animal treatment is too cruel to tolerate. Lawyers to thank: The California Attorney General’s Office and a coalition of organizations including the Humane Society of the United States and Animal Legal Defense Fund, which filed amicus briefs. Similarly….

California’s Egg Law Upheld: Six states sued California claiming that Prop 2, which requires humane conditions for egg-laying hens, violated interstate commerce. Why it’s important: The court found that the states had no basis to sue since they were really just representing the interests of the egg industry, and not the state’s entire population. (The case is on appeal, but the law just went into effect.) Lawyers to thank: (again) The State of California.

Country of Origin Labeling for Meat Upheld: Big Meat sued the feds because it doesn’t want consumers to know where their meat comes from. Why it’s important: The court held that consumers have an interest in American-made products, among other concerns, and thus the law does not violate the First Amendment’s “compelled speech” doctrine. Lawyers to thank: The USDA, along with groups filing amicus briefs such as Food and Water Watch and HSUS.

Unilever Drops Lawsuit Against Hampton Creek: I wrote about this extensively and suffice to say, it will go down as the one of the biggest PR blunders of the year. Meanwhile, the start-up raised $90 million in the wake of the lawsuit, and the magazine Inc. included how Hampton Creek stood up to Unilever in its “Most Inspiring Business Moments of 2014″.

Food Safety – Prevention and Punishment

FDA Forced to Release Food Safety Regulations: Despite a law requiring the Food and Drug Administration to reduce food safety illnesses with a number of prevention rules, the agency stalled and then fought legal challenges until being forced to settle. Why it’s important: No point in getting an important law passed unless the agency responsible actually carries it out. Lawyers to thank: The Center for Food Safety.

Food Safety Violators Punished as Criminals: 2014 saw egregious violators of food safety laws paying the price, in a rare showing of federal might. You might recall, nine people died after eating peanut butter in 2009, almost 2,000 were made ill from salmonella in eggs in 2010 resulting in to the largest recall in history (half a billion), and in 2011, 33 people died in a listeria outbreak in melon. At last, 2014 was the year of reckoning for each of the individuals involved in the these preventable tragedies. Here is how Food Safety News puts it:

Beginning in 2014, with the sentencing of two Colorado cantaloupe growers, and continuing with the guilty pleas from the nation’s one-time king of egg production, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, and his son, Peter, and then the historic jury trial of former Peanut Corporation of America officers and managers, federal criminal law rarely used before in such circumstances was put to work this year in the name of food safety… Taken together, these federal prosecutions represent an entirely new toolbox for food-safety enforcement.

Let’s hope the feds continue to use these tools to send a clear message to potential violators: clean up your act to prevent problems or you could personally face jail time. Lawyers to thank: In addition to the feds, food safety attorney Bill Marler is a tireless advocate, both on behalf of his clients, and to fix the system to prevent future harm.

Cleaning up Deceptive Labeling

  • Hudson Valley Foie Gras Stops Humane-washing (Thanks to Animal Legal Defense Fund). This is one of my favorites because the case was brought on behalf of a competing business, not a consumer, which I hope we see more of. Here is how Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) describes the case:

ALDF’s lawsuit against Hudson Valley Foie Gras was the first time a humane competitor used false advertising laws in a federal case alongside an animal protection group. Ella Nemcova, a co-plaintiff in ALDF’s suit, owns a Brooklyn-based company called The Regal Vegan, which produces a legitimately humane and plant-derived foie gras alternative called “Faux Gras.” Hudson Valley Foie Gras, on the other hand, promoted themselves as “The Humane Choice” while brutalizing ducks for gourmet profits. HVFG’s deceptive tactics violated state and federal laws by unfairly urging consumers to buy force-fed foie gras rather than cruelty-free products like The Regal Vegan’s. ALDF withdrew that lawsuit after Hudson Valley Foie Gras removed its deceptive use of “humane” language.

Worker Rights

McDonald’s Held Liable for Franchisees’ Labor Violations: McDonald’s has long hidden behind its franchisees in claiming that it has no control over paying its workers a living wage and the right to organize. The National Labor Relations Board (of the federal government) ruled otherwise, finding McDonald’s a “joint employer” and potentially liable for illegally firing, threatening, or penalizing workers for pro-labor activities. Why its important: The ruling could put additional pressure on McDonald’s to pay its workers a living wage; the current campaign is asking for $15 an hour. Lawyers to thank: Fast Food Forward and SEIU, and the judge at NLRB for doing the right thing. (Similarly, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Walmart violated the rights of workers in California by threatening retaliation for attempting to organize – thanks to the OUR Walmart campaign for bringing the action.)

Protecting Children (Bonus)

Gatorade Stops Bashing Water: This one was was fun a team effort. In January my fellow advocate Nancy Huenergarth called out Gatorade’s atrocious kids’ mobile game that told teens to “Keep Your Performance Level High by Avoiding Water”. That’s when I suggested that Nancy (who lives in New York) contact my colleague, Ellen Fried at the New York State Attorney General’s office to file a formal complaint, which she did. By October, PepsiCo agreed to stop making the app available and paid a small fine. Thanks to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Assistant Attorney General Ellen Fried for taking action.

Lawsuits to watch in 2015

I am sure I missed a few so please add others in the comments. Inspired to become a lawyer? See Harvard’s excellent resource: Food Law and Policy Career Guide. And show lawyers some love.

3 Responses to “Top 10 Legal Victories for the Food Movement in 2014”

  1. Well, this is awesome. I am so grateful to the lawyers who are working on this issue.

  2. Jean Kautt says:

    Michele, thanks again for putting out this credible, well sourced update on important food safety and ethics. I will share widely with the co-ops in my sphere of influence, as well as staff and shoppers in our 6 locations. A great way to begin the new year!

  3. Ileana says:

    Amazing! This makes me so happy!

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