Diversity Scholar Rob Velazquez Shares Summer Internship Experience

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I spent my 1L summer as a legal intern for the Ike Jime Federation (“IJF” or “the Federation”). The IJF is a company dedicated to improving the value proposition of American fish and seafood despite a regulatory context that, unlike their “agricultural” counterparts, has historically undermined such value. Principled on the same method of slaughter that has given rise to the premium seafood economy in Japan, the Federation argues that if the commercial seafood industry were subject to the same or similar “slaughtering” protocols set forth in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 (“HMSA”), which at present only apply to cattle, pork, and other livestock, the American domestic seafood economy would be radically transformed. Absent such legislation, however, the IJF has worked to develop its own fish handling protocols, standards, and tools that are informed by the same scientific rigor that gave rise to the HMSA.

My work with the Federation was three-fold.

First, I focused on discrete research tasks centered on the statutory and regulatory underpinnings of the modern seafood economy against the backdrop of the modern “meat” industry. Currently, the US Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) is delegated with the authority to oversee the processing, classification, and grading, of “animal” products (and enforcing quality standards) through several federal statutes. However, because fish are not “animals” under these statutes, the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) is therefore entrusted with regulatory oversight of the seafood industry. Further, my research indicated that the commercial seafood industry is largely self-policed through a series of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (“HACCP”) manuals, which are cursory and typically restricted to describing potential food-borne illnesses and ways to mitigate such risk. And that is all.

Second, I drafted memoranda that summarized and detailed the implications of these findings. Referencing existing statutes, regulations, and case law, I explained why the U.S. fishing industry lacks meaningful standards, articulated in any form, as to either 1) the manner of slaughter or 2) the manner of storage and distribution. The stark contrast to the litany of laws and regulations that apply to our domestic “meat” industry was fascinating.

Perhaps most importantly, I was able to draw on my past experiences as a professional chef and sportfisherman, and draft new, proposed language for existing regulations that industry most intimately interacts with, namely, 21 C.F.R. § 123 (“the FDA Food Code”). My experience as an angler allowed me to envision practical, realistic modifications to specific provisions in the Food Code that may create measurable standards for fish and seafood handling at the point of slaughter. My background in the fine dining industry gave me a unique optic through which to propose practical, realistic modifications to the Food Code ensuring that fish and seafood subject to such standards are then subject to additional standards concerning storage, transport, and delivery. Put simply, I used a summer’s worth of studying federal statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions related to American seafood, translated this complex interplay into the language of industry I have deep experience in, and crafted a categorical system permitting seafood harvesters and producers to market under a new standard of best practices.

This summer has proven to be educational and rewarding beyond my expectations. I also believe it is safe to say that the open invitation from the IJF to continue my work educating both commercial producers, chefs, and political leadership beyond the dates of this summer’s engagement speaks for itself. I want to sincerely thank the Environmental Integrity Project for their support, which has made this summer internship financially feasible for me and my family. Additionally, I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn and practice in such a profoundly important yet often overlooked sector of the law. I look forward to applying these experiences in my career development.