- Associated Press - Sunday, April 3, 2011

The No. 2 official at the Agriculture Department recently got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries: “local.”

Walking into her neighborhood grocery store in Washington, Kathleen Merrigan saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were local produce. But the package itself said they were grown in California, about 2,330 miles away.

The popularity of locally grown food — which many assume means the food is fresher, made with fewer chemicals and grown by smaller, less-corporate farms — has led to an explosion in the use of the word “local” in food marketing. It’s the latest big thing after the surge in food marketed as “organic,” another subject of continuing labeling controversy.

But what does local mean? Lacking common agreement, sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some grocery stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.

“It’s a sales gimmick,” said Allen Swann, a Maryland farmer who became frustrated when he realized a nearby grocery chain was selling peaches and corn from New York and New Jersey as local produce. “They are using the word local because of the economic advantage of using the word local.”

A federal definition is unlikely because of the diversity of crops and growing regions throughout the country. A set distance or definition that works for one state or one crop may not make sense for others. But some states have taken a crack at it.

Vermont defines “local” as grown within the state or within 30 miles of where it is sold. Massachusetts has similar restrictions for the word “native.” And numerous other states have made it easier for local farmers to advertise that their food was produced in-state.

Maryland recently proposed a new rule that would require retailers to disclose what state a food is from if they advertise it as locally grown. Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl “Buddy” Hance said the state settled on that approach so consumers could be the ones to decide what they think is local.

“We were concerned that when a consumer went into a store and saw that they were buying local corn they thought they were supporting Maryland farmers, and that wasn’t always the case,” he said.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has found there is no generally accepted definition of local food. With few regulations, retailers have different standards.

Whole Foods Market said a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Walmart labels produce as “local” if it is from the same state where it is sold. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, Jewel-Osco and other supermarket chains define local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers just leave it up to individual store managers.

The Agriculture Department said consumer preferences for locally grown food can mean more jobs and profits for local farmers and higher produce sales in stores. The department estimates that locally grown foods will generate $7 billion in sales this year, up from $5 billion in 2007.



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