Global Food Law

Dr. hegarty: WHY FOOD LAWS ARE IMPORTANT TO EVERYBODY

In the early 1990s I walked across campus to the Michigan State University Library. There is nothing unusual about that. My mission was to photocopy some recent food laws filed in the U.S. Government documents section of the library. Sometimes I was unlucky. Somebody before me had ripped out the pages I needed. If I wanted information on food laws in other countries, I wrote a letter to the Agricultural Attaché at that country’s embassy in Washington DC.

I no longer make the walk across campus or write letters to embassies because the food laws of most countries are available on the Internet. This is an important improvement because WHO/FAO list food laws as the second point in a 7-point food safety needs assessment tool. The first point on the list is the government location of the national food safety agency or agencies. That makes sense because that agency has the national responsibility of drafting, amending, updating, and implementing food laws. The second point is food laws. That makes sense also because the remaining five points are dependent on accurate and up to date food laws. The points following food laws are emergency preparedness and response to food safety issues, and foodborne disease surveillance and exposure monitoring. Following these two points is food safety implementation, product monitoring and inspection. We have been to too many countries where observing the food inspection service tells us that food safety control is poor. Risk communication and information follows, and the seventh point is the need for human and financial resources to implement an effective national food safety system. These important 7-points depend on effective, up-to-date food laws and regulations.  

Food laws are clearly important at the national and international level since so much of our food comes from all corners of the world. So, food laws must be an important course at universities? Regrettably, the answer seems to be ‘No.’ The logical department to look at are departments of Food Science or Food Technology. There the undergraduates get the basics in Food Chemistry, Food Microbiology, Food Processing. Food Product Development and many more courses requiring information on relevant food laws. We logged on to the curriculum for Food Science on the websites of 37 Departments of Food Science and/or Food Technology in the US. Eighteen universities listed a semester course in Food Laws. Alarmingly, 19 US universities had no food law course listed. We then searched a total of 120 universities (including the US) in 36 countries with undergraduate degrees in Food Science/Technology. Equally alarming is 84 universities in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Africa, and Latin America did not offer a semester course in Food Laws. Many of these universities were in developing countries. Only 36 universities offered a Food Law course.

Departments in some universities may have a section on the laws and regulations related to their specialty. For example, entomology and pesticide residues in food, plant biology and GMOs, veterinary degree programs and the safety of veterinary drug residues in foods. If they do, that is better than nothing! We maintain that Departments of Food Science/Food Technology are the best locations for comprehensive undergraduate Food Law courses on national and global issues. It is unfortunate that so many graduates are leaving universities around the world with expertise in various aspects of food, but with no expertise in Food Laws. These are the people who will be in national regulatory agencies or in food companies along the entire food chain. Most of them must get their Food Law information by osmosis from their exploration of websites, webinars, and short courses. Dare we say it — some universities are doing them a disservice. The graduates are even denied the most fundamental aspect of Food Laws. That is the knowledge and expertise of how food laws and regulations are drafted, interpreted, applied, amended, and updated.

This vacuum is filled now by the Global Food Law Program (GFLP), College of Law, Michigan State University. It offers online a LL.M. and an M.J. degree in Food Law. Also offered by GFLP is a 1-credit online course Drafting, Amending, Updating Food Laws — Government, Industry and Consumer Roles. This short course has a global approach that is relevant to local, state, and national food safety regulatory agencies, food industries from farm to table and to all consumers. Two brief examples of how the approach to a new food law must be decided before the law in drafted. In regulating the safety of GMOs in food and feed, the European Union (EU) uses the Precautionary Principle. The U.S. uses Substantial Equivalence as the basis for laws and regulations dealing with GMOs. In regulating the chemicals in the manufacture of food packages, the EU regulates 17 food contact materials (glass, plastic, paper, etc.). and the chemicals in them. The U.S. regulates food contact substances, the chemicals in the packaging materials, as food additives. Current and future government and industry personnel need to know how food laws are drafted, as well as applying the laws correctly. This 1-credit course can be taken as an individual ‘stand- alone’ course. I am the Professor teaching this course. I will be pleased to provide further information on the course. Further details on degrees and courses in the Global Food Law Program are obtainable from Ms. Ashley James jamesas1@law.msu.edu  

Swallowing trust in the safety of our food will be improved when everybody along the entire food chain has a better knowledge on how food laws are drafted correctly, interpreted correctly, and applied correctly. We trust that day will come soon!

If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food     FAO

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