The Attack on Food Freedom

You may have caught wind of the big stink in the headlines recently over artisanal cheese. The traditional, handcrafted fare nearly became the latest casualty of overzealous food regulation when the Food and Drug Administration announced that cheesemakers would no longer be allowed to use wooden boards in the aging process, as they have done since cheese was invented.

Baylen Linnekin of Keep Food Legal and Michael Bachmann explain in a new report that government has a growing appetite for this kind of regulation. “The Attack on Food Freedom” is the first report in a new series published by the Institute for Justice, Perspectives on Economic Liberty.

What is food freedom? Linnekin defines it as your right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat and drink the foods of your choice. It’s a freedom as American as apple pie, and Linnekin explains how the struggle to choose what and how we eat is baked into American history.

Today, encroachments on food freedom come in a variety of flavors. “Overzealous food safety regulations” create costly new standards, even when they make no discernible reduction in food borne illnesses. Last year, for example, the FDA proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act that would require smaller farmers, like small apple farms in Washington, to implement expensive water filtration standards only necessary for nuts. Unsurprisingly, larger farms and corporate chains are in favor of these additional regulations because they have the legal and financial resources to comply—unlike their smaller competition, which could potentially be crushed by these types of crippling laws. Thus, laws intended to protect public health end up protecting the bottom line of entrenched businesses.

Other times, the motivation is to protect the consumer…from themselves, what Linnekin calls the “’new’ public health.” In New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban sodas larger than 16 oz. from restaurants and food trucks, citing the possibility that consuming them in excess could lead to obesity. The troubling trend is nationwide. In recent years San Francisco has banned free toys in fast food meals because they appeal to children, and Los Angeles has prohibited new fast food restaurants in certain low-income neighborhoods.

And then there are “bureaucratic hoops,” mind-boggling and arcane restrictions at varying levels of government. Stories abound of cities uprooting and trampling front yard vegetable gardens because they did not properly fit in the zoning code. A 2009 Utah law calls for costly “Zion Curtains,” actual physical barriers, to be installed in all restaurants so that patrons may not see their cocktails being mixed. Whether by protectionism, paternalism, or puritanism, food freedom is facing some tough pickles.

But food-lovers and freedom-lovers are pushing back. In 2013, the Institute for Justice launched its National Food Freedom Initiative, and has already sued to defend free speech for a raw milk producer in Oregon, the property rights of a vegetable-gardening couple in Florida, and the economic liberty of cottage food producers in Minnesota. If your right to food freedom is on the chopping block, fight back by letting us know.

So what became of the artisanal cheesemakers? The story is still unfolding, and it looks like the FDA has backpedaled for now, but not without giving us all some heartburn. “A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community,” noted one blogger at Cheese Underground. That name describes exactly what the government should expect if it keeps squeezing: underground cheese.

— Garrett Atherton
Garrett Atherton is the outreach coordinator at the Institute for Justice

Sign up to receive IJ's biweekly digital magazine, Liberty & Law along with breaking updates about our fight to protect the rights of all Americans.