The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Food Safety and Nutrition

Resource economist works consumer side of food policy and regulation
  • UMass Professor Julie Caswell stands in front of "Harvest" food court in the campus center.

“The supermarket is a lab for me. It is where we can see what nutrition and other quality claims companies think are important to consumers....”

–Julie Caswell

Professor of Resource Economics Julie Caswell is internationally known for her research on the economics of food safety and nutrition. Her many appointments to national food safety and nutrition boards richly attest to the importance of her work keeping consumers informed of the quality of the food they eat.

While researching the economics of food safety, Caswell has examined both the costs and incentives of creating safe foods on local, national, and international scales. She has focused on the benefits of food labeling, the impacts of sanitary and phytosanitary regulations on international trade, and risk-based food-safety regulation. She made a special impact by joining campus colleagues to study the impacts of trans-fat labeling, which was not required until 2006. Emily Wang, Hongli Wei, and Caswell examined the food industry from 2000 (pre regulation) to 2011 (post regulation) to track how the market changed in response. Caswell has also served on four National Academies committees that delivered major policy reports on dioxins in food, the benefits and costs of seafood consumption, the Food and Drug Administration’s use of risk-based approaches to food safety, and the public release of meat plant inspection data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The supermarket is a lab for me,” she said recently. “It is where we can see what nutrition and other quality claims companies think are important to consumers, and track the development of the market for quality. Food safety policy is all about reducing risk. The question is how to best do that in a local, national, and international market for food products.”

In 2011, Caswell was recognized for her research in this area by being named a fellow of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the premier U.S. and international professional organization for agricultural and applied economists. She has consulted with international organizations on risk-based food policy, most recently with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations during fall 2013. UMass Amherst has also recognized Caswell for her notable contributions, first with the Chancellor's Medal in 2005 and again in 2011 with an Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity Award.

“I’m interested in people, the consumers,” said Caswell. “Many universities in my field work on agricultural production, but UMass is attractive to me because I get to work on the consumer end of the food system.”

While she enjoys research, Caswell finds her hands-on work with students to be just as rewarding. In 2014 she was named associate dean in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS). There, through the newly developed Pathways Program, she works with colleagues and with students from their freshman year onwards to create integrative-learning experiences that combine portfolios, first-year seminars, and professional-development workshops. SBS hopes that these components will help students maximize their college experience through personal advising and mentorship from members of the college and its departments.

“Graduating seniors often think back and wish they’d made more out of their college experience,” she said. “My job is to help prevent such regrets.”

Valerie Inniss '16