LAS VEGAS — Should the fresh produce industry really look a gift horse in the mouth?

That was the topic of discussion — well, sort of — April 22 at a round-table discussion “The Future of Locally Grown” during United Fresh 2010.

Maybe not, concluded grower-shippers and retailers on hand for the discussion — and there were about three dozen of them.

In an informal vote of raised hands regarding the importance of forming a universally accepted definition for “locally grown” produce, those voting a standard definition as unnecessary outnumbered those who thought it important by 2-to-1.

“Do we need a definition of locally grown? Sometimes I really struggle with this because it changes from customer to customer, so it’s very difficult as a retailer to tie that down,” said Reggie Griffin, corporate vice president of produce and floral merchandising procurement for Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co., who helped lead the discussion.

“You could spend a whole lot of money trying to change customer perception and get nothing for it,” Griffin said after noting consumers and even those employed in food industries are even confused by exactly what ‘locally grown’ means.

But maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as the profits from so-called locally grown produce continue to roll in and benefit especially growers.

“I have a different take on it,” said as Craig Ignatz, vice president of produce and floral for Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Markets Inc. “Let the people decide. Maybe ‘regional grown’ is a better label for it, or a better way to articulate it.”

Consumers may not know what ‘locally grown’ produce is, but they’re sure buying lots of it, and that’s just fine with everybody who attended the session.

And, as far as the future of future of the locally grown movement goes, it’s full-steam ahead. In fact, Griffin predicted it could even explode in popularity more than it has in the last year by 2015.

“In five years, (the popularity of) this could multiply by a factor of four or five — at a minimum,” Griffin said. “It’s not going away because it’s so popular with chefs, and the restaurant industry (tends to drive retail).”

Others in the crowd agreed they are surprised by locally grown produce’s quick ascension and said they expect its momentum to build.

Local-grown produce even made a splash on the show floor at United Fresh, as companies such as Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms touted their commitment to the movement and plan to expand their related marketing efforts.

In fact, Robin Doran, Naturipe’s communications director, said the company is eager to feature local growers such as third-generation Michigan farmer Art Thomas in advertising/promotional campaigns in conjunction with retailers such as Roundy’s and Giant Eagle.

Those in the audience at the discussion on locally grown produce, however, pointed out that while consumers’ buying habits are encouraging, grower-shippers and retailers still face hurdles.

Concerns raised included making sure they have consistent availability of locally grown produce to offer consumers and being able to obtain local grown at a reasonable price point.

Food safety is also a point of concern. As Kroger retailer Willie Williams, from Eaglewood, Ohio, reminded the audience, “It only takes one incident to take your brand down” so maintaining high quality standards for local-grown produce is paramount.

When is locally grown local?