Good taste // Best Practices

One of Canada’s few food lawyers dishes on creating a new area of practice

By Julie Baldassi

On Monday June 10th, 2013


The first time Carly Dunster ate guacamole at the formative age of 15, it felt like a revelation. How had she gone through her whole life without avocado, she wondered. Growing up in a Canadian household of distant Irish descent, “there were a lot of beige meals,” she jokes. But food was always important to her. In high school, she would walk home from school at lunch to make herself fresh stir-fries; behaviour that adults noted as somewhat peculiar of a teenager. “I just always wanted real food,” she recalls. But Dunster’s present profession — sole practitioner at Carly Dunster Law in the emerging field of food law — wasn’t as immediately evident to her as her love for food itself.

“I had no idea that you could even do food law. I didn’t go to law school expecting to do this,” she says over a breakfast of poached eggs on black bean polenta, homemade  salsa, cilantro sour cream and an extra side of bacon at Parkdale’s Mitzi’s Café.

After graduating from Windsor Law in 2006, she decided the employment law firm she was articling at, Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP, wasn’t the right fit. Dunster then tried a variety of non-legal endeavours — speechwriting, working in the non-profit sector and even doing a short stint at a butcher’s — but none of them captivated her. “I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she says.

Then she read a blog post written by Toronto food enthusiast Hassel Aviles and unexpectedly found her first gig as a food lawyer. Aviles wanted to recreate the successful — yet not-quite-legal — San Francisco Underground Market in Toronto, but she wanted her version to be above board.

The two met for coffee and found they both shared a passion for the project. Dunster got to work and helped Aviles acquire the necessary approvals from public health to open the Toronto Underground Market (TUM) in 2011. “Carly was an integral part of bringing TUM to life,” says Aviles.

As TUM launched, other food entrepreneurs started asking Dunster legal questions and she realized she had a valuable skill set. So she set up her own practice from her Parkdale home, which she shares with her partner, Spacing publisher and editor Matthew Blackett. (The two share an interest in urban affairs and are expecting their first child in August.) When not practicing food law, Dunster works part-time at a boutique employment law firm alongside four women who are supportive of her outside endeavours.

With her own practice still in its infancy, Dunster is working out just what it means to be a food lawyer. She offers affordable legal support to small organizations like TUM, and Hamilton’s first non-profit co-operative grocery store, The Mustard Seed. She’s also taken on numerous side projects, such as organizing a network of food lawyers, creating a legal resource guide for the sustainable food industry and encouraging the development of courses in food law at universities. She also does advocacy work and is a member of the Toronto Food Policy Council. As Dunster points out, “political leaders are still coming around to the idea that food is a portfolio.” 

In fact, lawyers in the corporate sector have long represented large food companies and their concerns with legislation over issues such as borders, food safety and labelling. But Dunster’s brand of food law is unique — she works at the grassroots level and is interested in change, not profitability. With a mandate to work only with clients she believes are seeking to build a more sustainable food system, Dunster’s pursuits are all the more palatable.

The Lowdown: Carly Dunster

Year of call: 2007
Current job: Sole practitioner at Carly Dunster Law
Favourite item in kitchen: Le Creuset Dutch oven
Favourite restaurants: Fancy: Le Sélect Bistro; Thrifty: Maizal
Most memorable meal: Haisai, Michael Stadtländer’s restaurant in Singhampton
Professional hero: Julia Child, Gloria Steinem, my parents 
If I weren’t a lawyer I’d be…A writer

Photography by Margaret Mulligan