Food Law. One cannot utter these two words together without eliciting some smart aleck response such as, “you should sue my husband for not knowing how to cook!” or even better, “so what, you represent tomatoes?” In many ways, defining food law is like defining Canadian food – many people would admit that poutine and peameal bacon sandwiches fall under the general definition, but they might hesitate to define the term at large. Similarly, one might just as easily acknowledge that an exclusive corporate practice representing restaurants, or a regulatory position at the Ministry of Fisheries, might both be considered food law professions. The challenge is reconciling the two as a single practice area.
While it is uncontestable that lawyers, researchers, policy makers, and organizations all occupy important positions in the food sector, these actors frequently approach food systems from a specific discipline or perspective such as agriculture, health and safety, regulation and innovation, poverty and social justice, food service, or environmental planning. However, as the hyper-elevated culinary world is drawing more attention to the link between sustainability, human rights and the food on our plates, the legal profession ought to evolve in response to the overwhelming demand for representation. With these thoughts in mind, I boarded a plane to Halifax to attend Canada’s first national food law conference.
An Unprecedented Conference
From November 3-4, 2016, the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University and Food Lawyers of Canada, in collaboration with the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance, brought together a group of 120 participants for a two-day national conference to explore the changing law and policy in Canadian food systems. Experts from a range of disciplines and geographical locations (six provinces, three countries, fifteen law firms, and twenty universities) offered their insights from practice, government, the non-profit sector and academia.
At the heart of this conference are co-organizers Jamie Baxter, Glenford Jameson, Shannon Paine and Jessica Rose. Jameson and Paine are both lawyers at Toronto-based law firm G.S. Jameson & Company, which has a corporate and regulatory practice and a focus on representing food sector clients. The pair are also driving to develop the professional food law organization, Food Lawyers of Canada. Jamie Baxter is a professor at Schulich Law School and is driving the development of academic content in the law school context along with JD student Jessica Rose. The diversity of the group ensured an emphasis on balancing both academic- and practice-driven content at this impressive event.
The attendees were diverse not only in ethnicity, attire and age, but also in the questions they brought forth, and moreover, who they represented. Lawyers from all areas of private practice, in-house counsel, and law students were the majority, but we also had representatives from Health Canada, the Canadian Beverage Association, various First Nations groups, and even an insect farm. Each presentation promised and delivered a new perspective and interesting information about niche developments in the food sector.
In one session, we learned about the criminalization of breaches of food legislation and policy. Employment lawyers Frank Portman and Jeremy Schwartz from Stringer LLP explained how complex directors’ liability can be when dealing with food labeling regime violations. Criminal lawyer Gerald Chan of Stockwoods LLP spoke about criminal and quasi-criminal charges relating to conventionally raised chicken that was redistributed as organic and anti-biotic free. All three lawyers are firmly rooted in their respective practice areas, but also acknowledge that they are food lawyers too, when called upon. In another panel, we were introduced to a securities lawyer who moved to Kelowna to devote his entire practice to wine regulation, and a former bartender turned civil litigator who frequently advises clients on British Columbia’s liquor laws and regulations.
Broadening our Palates
Given the unique nature of this event and the close ties between Dalhousie University and Nova Scotia, the bonus culinary components of the conference were well above my expectations. In addition to generally eating very well in Halifax, one of the highlights of the entire weekend was a public talk by Bryant Terry, James Beard Leadership Award winner, author, and current Chef in Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, held at the Halifax Seaport Market.
The conference also partnered with Devour! The Food Film Fest, the largest film festival in the world devoted to all things culinary.
We enjoyed The Chocolate Case, a wonderful documentary that investigates the ethics and supply chain management of the chocolate trade. This was followed by a panel led by Jameson featuring the film director, Benthe Forrer, and professor Melissa Card of Michigan State's Institute for Food Laws and Regulations. As if that (and the chocolate we ate throughout) wasn’t enough of a treat, we also participated in an Oceanwise-led Chowder Cookoff, featuring some of the best restaurants and chefs in Halifax, followed by an oyster-filled industry happy hour.
I can’t imagine how next year’s organizers will be able to find such complementary and timely culinary events. But with the overwhelming success of this year’s conference, I hope that Montreal, Toronto or Ottawa will be inspired to put together something equally creative.
Months after the conference, I have yet to formulate a comprehensive definition of food law that I am completely satisfied with. However, as our final keynote speaker Michael Roberts, Executive Director of UCLA Law Resnick Program for Food Law & Policy, aptly pointed out, maybe we should first answer the question: what is food?
From the regulation of truffles and breast milk, to the private sector traceability of bagged spinach, this conference was a unique forum for connect, share ideas, identify common needs and resources, and look towards the future. While it seems that food law in Canada is only just beginning to define itself and the role of its participants, at the very least, this conference served as the first step towards a more holistic approach.
As it stands in 2017, it appears that is that food law is a movement, a perspective, and moreover, a framework for which to think about our environment and the things that we consume. Perhaps food law may never even become a practice area in the traditional sense, but that is up to us to decide.
For more information about the conference, and the food law in Canada, please visit Food Lawyers of Canada.
About the author
Annie Chu is an associate at Brauti Thorning Zibarras with a practice focused primarily on family law and civil litigation. She also has significant experience working with clients in the food industry. Annie is an active member of the Rotary Club of Toronto and the founder of the culinary travel blog, Chu on This.
 The first national food law conference of its kind.
 Al Hudec, senior partner at Farris, Vaughan, Wills & Murphy LLP
 Daniel Coles of Owen Bird Law Corporation