Head of UCLA’s New Food-Law Program Brings Ties to Business

February 03, 2014

When a lawyer named Michael T. Roberts decided to take up food law more than decade ago, his colleagues tried to dissuade him, saying he was "chasing something that wouldn’t be around very long," he recalls. A few years later, at the University of Arkansas in 2004, he taught what he believes to be the first food-law-and-policy course at a law school in the nation. Now food policy "has really careened into a large movement within higher education," says Mr. Roberts.

As founding executive director of the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy at UCLA’s law school, a job he began on August 1, Mr. Roberts could play a leading role in that movement: gathering together experts at conferences to discuss the latest topics, teaching law students, and seeking out researchers who can contribute in the areas of nutrition, obesity, food fraud, sustainability, and litigation, among many others.

He brings to the job, along with a solid background in higher education and law, ties to the company owned by the philanthropists who donated the money to create the new program, Stewart and Lynda Resnick.

After practicing food and agricultural law in the Washington, D.C., office of Venable LLP and being a visiting scholar in Rome, Mr. Roberts was planning to go back into academe when, he says, he was recruited to work for Roll Law Group PC, a law firm that exclusively represents Roll Global, which is owned by the Resnicks. "What attracted me is they had good healthy food products," Mr. Roberts says.

As special counsel at Roll Law Group beginning in 2008, he focused on international food issues, he says, and traveled to China and Europe. One achievement he cites is helping to stop the unnecessary bleaching of food products in China, including pistachios, a product of Roll’s company Paramount Farms.

In an online version of a paper that appeared in 2010 in the Journal of Food Law and Policy, which he founded while at the University of Arkansas, Mr. Roberts criticizes "economic adulteration" of products like pomegranate juice through dilution or other means. The paper discusses a lawsuit that Pom Wonderful, a Roll company, won against a competitor over that issue. "Over 81 percent of consumers now consume pomegranate juice because of its health benefits," he wrote. "Medical and scientific research shows that pomegranate juice can help combat cardiovascular disease, cancer, and erectile dysfunction."

To support those assertions, he cited some of the same studies that were cited in Pom Wonderful ads that the Federal Trade Commission found to be false or deceptive in 2013.

Mr. Roberts says he did not play a role in the FTC case against Pom because he is not a trial litigator.

In 2011, a nonprofit organization with a name similar to the new program at UCLA, the Center for Food Law and Policy, was registered in California at the address of Roll Global’s Los Angeles headquarters. Mr. Roberts was its director. He started devoting about a third of his time at Roll to that center, he says, teaching and lecturing, and visiting scholars around the world to discuss food law and policy. The center, which no longer exists, is unrelated to the program at UCLA, he says.

After applying for his position at UCLA, where he already taught as an adjunct, he competed against "a number of other contestants," he says. He takes direction, he says, from the program’s advisory board and the law school’s dean.

He says he is not concerned that the Resnicks could steer the program’s research toward their commercial interests, as its consumer focus makes that unlikely. "There’s a clear understanding that this is a university; it values independent thought," he says, "and we’re so focused on building the curriculum and building our program here that we haven’t really given much thought to what notions they may or may not have."