Food Fight: Q&A With Baylen Linnekin of Keep Food Legal

Baylen Linnekin, Food Freedom Fighter
Linnekin: foodie, freedom fighter

During our wall-to-wall coverage of the Great Lazy Cakes Crackdown of 2011, I talked with Baylen Linnekin, the founder and executive director of Keep Food Legal, an organization based in Washington D.C. devoted to culinary freedom. Baylen has worked as a food and beverage attorney and holds a master of laws degree (LL.M.) in agricultural and food law from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

I followed up with a more extensive interview with Baylen about culinary freedom, his time in Arkansas, and more.

What is Keep Food Legal?  

Keep Food Legal is a nationwide, nonprofit, grassroots, membership organization devoted to culinary freedom—the right of every American to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, and eat the foods of their own choosing.

In practice, that means adults have an equal right to grow their own food, buy it from a farmers’ market, or shop at a big box store. They have a right to consume raw milk; a right to eat cupcakes made with trans fats; a right to drink sweetened soda; a right to butcher and sell meat they raised on their farm; a right to produce, sell, and eat foie gras; and a right to get tipsy on Four Loko.

All that said, Keep Food Legal neither advocates in favor of nor against making any particular food choices. Consumers can make these choices for themselves and their families.

Banning food harms consumers and distorts the market. That’s why we also oppose farm subsidies—which have helped usher in problems like obesity and environmental degradation—and taxes targeting particular foods.

Tell us about some of your organization’s recent work on behalf of food freedom. 

Recently Keep Food Legal submitted comments to the Federal Trade Commission on the issue of marketing food to children. The federal government is looking to implement what it’s calling “voluntary guidelines” on marketing food to kids to counter childhood obesity. There’s no doubt childhood obesity is a real problem. We discussed how the proposed regulations simply won’t accomplish anything like what the government intends. We also argued that these so-called voluntary guidelines are pretty clearly unconstitutional speech regulations under the First Amendment.

We’ve also spent a lot of time lately advocating for the right of people to buy, sell, and consume raw milk. A lot of this stems from the fact the Food and Drug Administration orchestrated an armed sting operation earlier this year on an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania.

I spoke at a subsequent rally in front of the U.S. Capitol that got a lot of press coverage—mainly because some clever advocates brought a cow to the rally, milked her, and drank the milk. I’ve also appeared on shows like Freedom Watch on Fox Business Channel talking about the raid, and have written about the issue in op-eds and articles in places like the Washington Times.

You’re a Massachusetts native who attended the University of Arkansas. How did you end up in the Natural State?

I got my law degree in Washington, D.C., but I was looking to broaden my knowledge in the area of food law and ag law. I did some searching and came across the University of Arkansas’s LL.M. program in Agricultural & Food Law. It seemed like it would be a really great fit.

So I traveled down to Fayetteville with my girlfriend—who was getting a degree in economics back in D.C. at the time—to check out the place. The deal was I couldn’t move to Fayetteville unless she’d want to visit me there. And sure enough we loved it there—even though Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport is so far out in the boondocks that we were a bit discouraged at first.

Except for a pesky brown recluse spider infestation in my apartment, Arkansas was great. Fayetteville is a really pretty city, the people are interesting and nice, and it was a great base to explore the rest of the state—from the urban happenings in Little Rock to the wineries of Altus to the zany mashup of gay/biker/European culture of Eureka Springs. I’m a Razorback for life now—Go Hogs!—and I’ll definitely be back in the state soon.

How did you get involved in food freedom issues?

I’ve been writing for a while now. I interviewed the great chef, author, and TV host Anthony Bourdain when I started law school in 2006, and wrote about Chicago’s foie gras ban in 2007, when it was still in effect.

I had gone to law school knowing what I didn’t want to do with my degree, which was to work for a law firm or for the government. I was sure I wanted to use my degree to advocate for civil liberties. I’ve always loved to cook and eat, too.

And like everyone else I’d become increasingly aware of food nannies on all sides of the partisan divide—from Democrats like current Boston Mayor Tom Menino and pretty much any elected official in San Francisco, to former Republican governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arkansas’s own Mike Huckabee, to Independents like current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In 2008, while I was still in law school, I launched a blog dealing with food and regulations. It didn’t take much effort to realize there were just so many bad laws and terrible regulations out there. And they kept increasing in severity and scope. And so my interest sort of took off from there.

Ultimately I found my calling as a lawyer in the fact that I love all sorts of food and hate people telling me and other people what we can and can’t eat.

Food restrictions seem to be accelerating at all levels of government. How did this war on food become a public priority? 

A lot of what we’re seeing today with overly bold food laws and regulations stems from what Prof. Richard Epstein and others have referred to as the “new” public health. The “old” public health was about mitigating the transmission of pathogens and poisons from person to person or food to person. It was about keeping botulism out of canned food. That sort of thing.

The old public health was a good thing. But today’s new public health isn’t about limiting poisons and pathogens. It’s about limiting choices and rights: Happy Meals can’t be too happy. No caffeinated beer. No raw almonds.

These new public health advocates believe people have a right to make choices—so long as the advocates agree with those choices. That’s not choice, that’s sinister Orwellian logic. Keep Food Legal believes every person has a right to make decisions about what food they ingest, and that individuals know what’s best for them and their families.

Why should people care about others’ rights when it comes to food?

Most people understand how the First Amendment works in practice: it places a giant barrier between the government’s ability to crack down on people’s right to worship or speak. Most people also support the First Amendment principle that others have a right to worship in their own way (or not at all) or to speak their own mind, even if they don’t practice the same religion or agree with the speaker.

Increasingly, people are coming to feel the same way about food choices and the government’s attack on them. You don’t have to eat what someone else eats to believe they have a right to eat that food. In return, people expect others to respect their right to make choices the others may not agree with.

For example, I mentioned raw milk. I don’t drink raw milk. In fact, I don’t drink pasteurized milk either. But I believe quite passionately that people have a right to consume milk—raw or pasteurized—if they want to.

The beauty of choice is that people don’t have to share in others’ choices or agree personally with those choices. As with the First Amendment’s bargain, I support your rights and expect you—and government—to support mine.

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