The official start of summer also ushers in numerous locally grown campaigns across the country, and at least one state is on the lookout for products that aren’t what they claim to be.

Earlier this month, New Jersey warned consumers to be aware of fresh produce that may be labeled or promoted as New Jersey-grown — even before harvests in the state had begun — to increase its cachet.

The state’s agriculture and consumer protection departments cited a case where “Yellow N.J. Corn” was promoted in a grocery store advertisement during late May, five to six weeks before New Jersey corn is typically harvested and shipped to stores.

Promoting out-of-state produce as “Jersey Fresh” or otherwise from the state is a “misrepresentation of fact” that violates consumer fraud law, New Jersey officials said.

“Consumers can be fooled into buying products that really don’t come from New Jersey,” New Jersey Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Alfred Murray said in a June 17 statement. Additionally, “our farmers are cheated out of their most important markets.”

Food retailers have scaled up locally grown offerings in recent years to capitalize on consumer perceptions that such products are safer and healthier, and, more importantly, help local growers. But there are no generally accepted standards on what defines local food.

It’s unclear whether more falsely labeled or promoted local food has reached the market recently.

New Jersey receives several complaints each year over possibly mislabeled foods, said Jeff Beach, a spokesman for the state’s agriculture department. He said the state expects to see further problems similar to the corn case.

“The more the eat local movement picks up steam, the more we’d expect to see this kind of thing happening,” Beach said.

Mislabeling or misrepresenting a product may result in a $10,000 fine for the first offense and $20,000 for subsequent offenses, Beach said. It isn’t known where the “NJ” corn was grown, Beach said. The corn was advertised by an independent grocer, which Beach declined to name.

Representatives with other top fruit and vegetable states, however, said they haven’t noticed any recent increases in misrepresented local products.

The Florida Department of Food and Consumer Services is not aware of any recent cases of mislabeling, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman.

Such products hurt “not only consumers, but the growers in our state who have achieved a well-earned reputation for producing quality products,” McElroy said.

In California, there have been a few honest mistakes in the past over food labeling, said Maile Shanahan Geis, executive director with Buy California Marketing Agreement, which runs the state’s locally grown promotion campaign.

“Retailers have been very thorough at correcting the mistakes at the point of sale,” she said. “I do not know of any instances where the mislabeling was intentional.”

Earlier this year, Maryland passed a law authorizing the state’s agriculture department to adopt standards defining “locally grown” and “local” and prohibiting anyone from knowingly promoting a farm product in violation of those rules. That followed a similar law passed by Vermont in 2008.

New Jersey has no such law, though the state’s legislature is discussing a bill that would strengthen enforcement of branding rules, Beach said.

The legislation, if approved, would allow agriculture department inspectors to write citations for misrepresented products, Beach said. Currently, only consumer affairs inspectors are allowed to do so.

States on lookout for local produce that isn’t

Amelia Freidline

Roadside signs like this one advertise fresh fruits and vegetables grown in New Jersey, but state inspectors are on the lookout for mislabeled packaging to make sure produce advertised as locally grown is from within the state.