As Quartz reporter Chase Purdy puts it, The Good Food Institute represents a “new flavor of foodie influence” in the U.S. capital.
Last year, agribusiness spent more than $132 million to get its special interests on the desks of lawmakers. GFI is here to represent a different set of interests—namely, a sustainable food future for the good of the planet and the planet’s inhabitants. To bring about this future, we have to level the playing field for plant-based and clean (i.e., grown in a culture without animal slaughter) alternatives to traditional animal agriculture.
That’s why we just brought on food law expert Nicole Negowetti to help us make good food a reality by serving as our policy director!
Before joining GFI’s team, Nicole worked as a professor at the Valparaiso University School of Law, where she taught and researched food policy, agricultural law, and sustainability. Nicole serves on the Food & Drug Law Journal editorial advisory board and is a founding member of the Academy of Food Law & Policy. She is also co-founder and vice chair of the NWI (Northwest Indiana) Food Council, whose mission is to build a just, sustainable, and thriving locally oriented food system.
Can you tell she’s laser focused?
Nicole shared with us what got her interested in food law in the first place and why policy work is so critical to the success of good food:
E: You’re extremely well-versed in food policy—what first made you want to focus on that specific area of law?
N: As an athlete, a mom, and a foodie, I began researching food policy to better understand food safety and consumer protection issues (e.g., whether you can trust what a label tells you about a product). I was shocked to discover the complexity of food regulation—15 different agencies and dozens of statutes are involved. To learn more, I developed Food Law & Policy, a class that was very popular with students. I also researched a variety of fascinating issues, including ag-gag legislation, labeling laws, and sustainability.
E: It was clearly rewarding for you to research these topics and share them with your students. What made you want to pivot away from the academic world?
N: For the past five years I’ve enjoyed studying and teaching about the problems of our modern industrialized food system, but I’ve also been seeking an opportunity to advocate for policies on the national level that could change our current course of unsustainable food production. Working as GFI’s policy director is the perfect way to do that!
E: Why should policymakers prioritize food-related issues?
N: The costs of our current industrial food system are not sustainable—from obesity to global poverty to environmental degradation—and the need for Congress and regulatory agencies to act is dire. Political engagement is critical to advancing a more sustainable food policy in Washington and bridging the gap between the marketplace, where plant-based products are in high demand, and D.C., where agribusiness exerts tremendous influence. As just one example, I’m fascinated by the emerging technology of clean meat and its potential to satisfy the planet’s growing appetite for animal products while ensuring a sustainable future. However, for this technology to be a viable solution to the food-related issues of our time, there needs to be a regulatory landscape that supports and promotes novel good food technology.
E: What do you see as one of the biggest challenges facing the plant-based and clean industries moving forward?
N: The government currently has all of these requirements for what you can put on labels, and the requirements—which were created more than 50 years ago—work to the advantage of meat companies and animal products and disadvantage of plant-based companies and products. Although the purpose of the standards was to protect consumers from contaminated products and economic fraud, they also significantly benefited food manufacturers. Revising the standards will be important to allowing the use of truthful and unambiguous terms, such as “almond milk,” “nut cheese,” “plant-based meat,” and “soy yogurt.” Right now, you’ll see these terms used by some manufacturers but not by others, and that’s just a function of whether the company’s lawyers have a high risk tolerance. That’s a silly way to enforce regulations.
E: Can you give an example of confusing or conflicting FDA standards?
N: Actually, I authored a series of articles criticizing the failure of the FDA, USDA, and FTC to define the term “natural” on food products and have advocated for a definition that is uniform among these agencies. Clarity and consistency are especially important with so many completely new and innovative products coming onto the market. It’s also important that this information be available as a tool for consumers, not simply a tool for well-established food lobbies to maintain the status quo.
E: All of that sounds extremely serious. Do you do anything a little…carefree?
N: Yes! When I’m not working, you can find me on the trails—running, hiking, cycling, and playing with my three-year-old son. I’m an avid runner and am planning to race my first marathon in 2017.
E: Whoa! I’m jealous of your energy! What’s your favorite way to refuel after a long run?
N: My favorite post-workout treat is a vegan smoothie made with chocolate Sprout Living Epic Protein, banana, chia seeds, cashew butter, and almond milk. I’m always thinking about this shake during those last few miles of a long run. Yum!
E: I’d consider running for one of those! Thanks so much for catching me up and for all the work you do for GFI!