Feature Stories

Food: Safe and Sound

Pioneering the economics of food systems for better policy outcomes
  • Julie Caswell and the Capital Building

Resource economist Julie Caswell is a sought-after expert in understanding what determines quality for food products and how that quality is signaled to consumers.

The economics of food systems and the policies that affect the public – from food quality and nutrition to food safety, labeling, and international trade regulations - are the focus of UMass Amherst resource economist Julie Caswell’s research and related work. Caswell has been instrumental in developing food policies on issues ranging from dioxins in food to cost-benefit analyses of seafood consumption to the use of risk-based food safety regulation.

With a joint PhD in agricultural economics and economics, Caswell (Resource Economics) arrived at UMass in 1984 and has being conducting research on economic incentives to produce safe and nutritious foods ever since. “The field of the economics of food safety was new when I started at UMass,” Caswell notes. “With colleagues around the country, we published several of the first books in this area, which is now internationally established.”

Caswell is a sought-after expert in understanding what determines quality for food products and how that quality is signaled to consumers. According to Caswell, “the key focus is why some quality attributes are regulated and some are not, depending on the types of risks they pose and how much information on those risks is available without regulation in the market.”

Caswell’s research applies directly to the choice of regulatory or non-regulatory options for assuring the quality and fair representation of food products. One current research project involves investigating how the new Food Safety Modernization Act will impact competition between quality certifiers in fresh produce markets.

Caswell is an elected Fellow of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the leading national and international organization in the field and is also currently serving as the Association’s new president. She has been a member of several National Academies Committees and chaired the Committee that reviewed the definition of the adequacy of benefit allotments under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly the Food Stamp Program), a U.S. Department of Agriculture program designed to improve access to healthy foods for low-income individuals and households. Today the program serves more than 46 million each year. Caswell is also a member of the Blue Ribbon Expert Panel focused on Consumer Concerns about Food, Health and Safety of the Council on Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics (C-FARE). The panel provides guidance on food safety, quality, and health to policy makers, stakeholders, media, and food, agricultural and resource economists. Caswell is also the recipient of an Outstanding Teaching Award, the university’s Award for Outstanding Achievements in Research and Creative Activity, the Chancellor’s Medal, and a Fulbright Fellowship, among other recognitions.

Caswell has come a long way since identifying herself as an applied economist after taking a course on the World Food Problem as an undergraduate at Michigan State. “The class was a mix of economics and policy and I was hooked,” she says. “My most rewarding work,” Caswell says, “is teaching undergraduate and graduate students and working on policy related research…I’m happy to have come full circle teaching Hunger in a Global Economy here at UMass Amherst.” 

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences