The Authority of State and Local Governments

As discussed in Chapter 1, each state has a state health agency that performs a wide range of duties. There are also approximately 2,800 local health departments.[1] Local health departments are involved with food through the regulation, inspection, and licensing of food service establishments, food safety education, population-based nutrition services, and the administration of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).[1] Local health departments are also involved in policy and advocacy activities related to obesity and chronic disease and food safety.

State and local governments address food related issues through their police power over health, safety, and welfare.[3] Strategies that fall under this rubric include zoning, licensing, health inspection of food service establishments, and direct controls. As long as government initiatives do not violate the constitutional rights of the regulated entity, courts generally defer to the government’s determinations of how best to further public health.[4] Still, when government regulates pursuant to its police power, the action must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The government’s interest in protecting public health is generally accepted as legitimate.[3] A state’s specific interest in regulating food retailers and restaurants might stem from the goals of food safety, sanitation, or encouraging nutritious choices. The government must employ a rational method to further its interests, so regulations cannot be unreasonable or arbitrary.[6] This means that not every conceivable restriction is legally feasible. The more effectively a regulation negatively influences purchase decisions, the more likely food companies or retailers will challenge the ordinance in court.

  • [1] National Association of County and City Health Officials. The National Profile of LocalHealth Departments.
  • [2] National Association of County and City Health Officials. The National Profile of LocalHealth Departments.
  • [3] Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).
  • [4] Gundlingv. Chicago, 177 U.S. 183 (1900).
  • [5] Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).
  • [6] Schmidinger v. Chicago, 226 U.S. 578 (1913).
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