Representatives of the fields of law, consumer advocacy, business and journalism conversed about food regulation and sustainable practices at a Thursday afternoon panel in the Yale Law School.
Hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, the Yale Environmental Law Association and the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the discussion touched on practices of labeling and regulation across the food industry. The panelists, including Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti, University of Texas Law Professor Thomas McGarity, freelance journalist Kristin Wartman and Urvashi Rangan, director of Consumer Reports’ consumer safety and sustainability group, offered several perspectives — ranging from business to regulatory — on the complications consumers face in gaining knowledge about the origin of their food.
“People want to know more about where their food comes from,” Rangan said. “They expect to know more and more as time goes on about how it is produced, and they do want to know more about how it’s raised.”
Rangan said she thinks consumers must be able to differentiate between accurate and false labeling, such as the distinction between “organic,” an official designation by the USDA, and “natural,” a vague term. In addition, she said differences in labeling can also be more subtle. For instance, “hormone-free beef” holds significance, but not hormone-free poultry or pork because all poultry and pork are hormone-free. Consumers deserve as much information as possible, she added, so they can make informed purchases.
Garutti said Shake Shack emphasizes sustainable practices such as using recycled construction materials and researching their ingredient suppliers. He said that when Shake Shack was trying to choose a supplier for the restaurant’s new bacon, most ranchers were unable or unwilling to provide the quantity Shake Shack demanded — 2,000 pounds per week — and to disclose their practices. Shake Shack employees make an effort to use unprocessed food from farms that use humane practices, Garutti said.
“The pigs we get, [they] get to be pigs,” he said, “and [there are] that many more farmers who get to do things the right way [because of us].”
But Garutti, who treated attendees of the panel to burgers and shakes compliment of Shake Shack, said he admits the restaurant chain’s sustainable practices are far from perfect. Shake Shack does not use grass-fed beef, he added, because grass-fed beef does not taste as good as grain-fed beef.
McGarity, who has worked both in government and academia, said government regulation and pressures from industry giants such as Monsanto make it difficult for smaller companies to market food as organic and sustainable because small companies cannot afford to criticize the larger ones. He said the USDA has an “immense institutional conflict of interest” between supporting the agriculture industry and regulating suppliers. He added that he questions government inspection practices, noting that inspectors in poultry slaughterhouses can be responsible for overseeing three birds per second.
Wartman said she is concerned about consumers who have “unknowingly been sabotaging their own health” because of misleading advice from corporations and doctors. She said she would advise consumers to eat a diet of unprocessed foods and recommends that individuals partake in their own food production.
YSFP Director Mark Bomford, who moderated the panel, said he helped organize it as a response to strong interest in food policy among students. Bomford said he advocates for learning about the source of ingredients, rather than food that comes from “global everywhere and nowhere.”
Jacob Wolf-Sorokin ’16 said he attended the panel because he wanted to learn more about eating responsibly, but that he would have liked more opportunity for audience participation.
The Yale Sustainable Food Project will hold another panel on Friday at 2:00 p.m., co-sponsored by the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale.