Food law, including traditional food safety regulation, antihunger programs, and food system worker protections, has received increased attention in recent years as a distinct field of study. Bringing together these disparate areas of law under a single lens provides an opportunity to understand the role of law in shaping what we eat (what food is produced and where it is distributed), how much we eat, and how we think about food. The food system is rife with problems— endemic hunger, worker exploitation, massive environmental externalities, and diet-related disease. Looked at in a piecemeal fashion, elements of food law appear responsive to these problems. Looked at as a whole, however, food law appears instead to entrench the existing structures of power that generate these problems.

This Article offers a novel conceptual critique of the food system. It argues that food law is built on two contradictory myths: the myth of the helpless consumer who needs government protections from food producers and the myth of the responsible consumer who needs no government protection and can take on the food system’s many problems herself. The first myth is self-actualizing, as the laws that it justifies disempower food consumers and producers. The second myth is self-defeating, as the legal structures that assume consumer responsibility impede meaningful consumer choice.

Food law, as it is shaped by these myths, constructs powerlessness by homogenizing— or erasing diversity within—the food system, paralyzing consumers through information control, and polarizing various food system constituents who might otherwise collaborate on reform. Ultimately, food law is designed to thwart food sovereignty. By revealing how the structures of food law itself obstruct reform, this Article also identifies a path forward toward true food sovereignty.