Leiden Law Blog

Food for law

Posted on by Alex Geert Castermans and Caspar van Woensel in Private Law
Food for law

On 17 September 2014 it was a big day for the future of food in the Netherlands: the Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid (Scientific council for government policy) presented its 173-page advice ‘Naar een voedselbeleid’ (Towards a food policy) to the Dutch government, addressing the safety, continuous availability, and sustainability of our food.
Despite these major topics, the report does little to arouse the passion of the legal observer. Law seems to be but an instrument, while the rule of law should serve as a goal in itself.

Determinants of a food policy

The advice is clear about the direction: Dutch official policy should shift its long-standing focus on agriculture to a ‘food policy’ that takes care of ecology, public health and ‘robust food networks’ which demands a coordinated effort between government ministers.
The council points to decades of increased international trade, a global presence of (Dutch) food companies, and increased foreign investments in the Dutch food sector.
The food industry has gone global and, as the report goes on to explain, the issues that affect food have become global too: there are natural disasters, plant diseases, and struggles in international relations to consider.

Report: sensible yet uninspiring

These changes as well as the uncertainties warrant the new policy approach, the council concludes. We do not disagree with the entirely sensible aspects of the report.
However, we do feel that the report is not as engaging as it could have been, considering that the council is an important official adviser to the government and that the ‘food dossier’ holds such important questions of our time.
The council could have painted a picture of the future of food in an international context using its imagination instead of delivering the frankly rather uninspiring read it is now. It could have contemplated the emerging corporate social responsibility of the food industry, with its effects on the rule of law. Thus, a perspective on what the law, and lawyers, can contribute to a new food policy for the Netherlands would have been of real value.

Pioneering food for law

Just as the entrepreneur from Delft Jacob Cornelis van Marken discovered in the 19th Century, taking good care of his employees and their families was not only virtuous but also lead to higher productivity in his yeast factory. There was no law that required Van Marken to do so, but once he chose to conduct business in this way he set an example in the food industry.
Yet, Van Marken was not as aware of the environment and the impact on the area surrounding the factory in Delft. The factory operations gave off a stench and caused serious pollution. Van Marken’s successor, Unilever, is more aware of environmental issues. It has announced that by 2020 it will only buy palm oil from traceable and certifyable sources. Rain forests are disappearing rapidly due to the expansion of (non sustainable) plantations, and local communities are in a tight corner even though some people find employment on the plantations.
Unilever, aided by international guidelines on business and human rights for multinational companies, is shaping its corporate social responsibility by drafting supplier codes of conduct, which cover human rights and stakeholder interests, and contracts with suppliers.

Legal determinants of a food policy

Van Marken and Unilever provided food for law. The law is developing outside what is laid down in statutory requirements, inspired by good examples in the industry. Lawyers and courts in several countries are trying to determine the legal status of ‘codes’, e.g. does a violation of a code mean that the company is legally liable.
Insights on the roles and responsibilities of multinational food companies, as well as on the distinction between social and legal responsibility, would be helpful to offer to the government, which can then decide in a more comprehensive way on a suitable course of action.

See our forthcoming article, in Dutch, in Ars Aequi, November Issue 2014.

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