Maryland’s effort to clear the air over exactly what “locally grown” means may actually cloud the debate further, produce industry officials said.

On May 4, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed 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.

“Anything within the state of Maryland is definitely local,” Hance said. “The question is how far outside the state we go.”

The new law’s specific standards haven’t been determined. By late July, Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance plans to put together an industry advisory group of growers, retailers, processors and consumers to come up with guidelines.

Maryland puts its foot down on 'local'

Courtesy Maryland Department of Agriculture

Maryland produce grower Russ Shlagel markets through farmers markets and grocery stores. Legislation in Maryland would allow the state's agriculture department to adopt standards defining "local" and "locally grown."

New rules are expected to be place by the 2011 growing season, Hance said.

It may be problematic if individual states implement regulations on locally grown food, giving seasonal, in-state growers an unfair marketing advantage at the expense of producers who supply stores year-round, Western Growers’ Matt McInerney said.

“That could ultimately lead to further confusion for consumers when making their produce choices,” said McInerney, executive vice president for the Irvine, Calif.-based trade group, which represents 3,000 growers in Arizona and California.

While numerous states promote their fresh produce through programs such as California Grown and Jersey Fresh, those programs do not preclude growers from nearby states to advertise or label their products as local when competing with the in-state produce.

Maryland would become the second state to adopt regulations on locally grown food. In 2008, Vermont passed a law requiring that “local” and “locally grown” labels be applied only to foods originating in the state or within 30 miles of where the products are being sold.

The Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said its research indicates consumers are “all over the board,” with no clear consensus on how to define locally grown.

“Trying to define ‘local’ is somewhat like trying to nail Jello to the wall,” said Julia Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Newark, Del.-based association.

“Efforts like this one in Maryland certainly face a challenge in trying to arrive at an agreement of what 'local' is," Stewart said.

Wave of local food

There’s been a tremendous increase in consumer demand for locally grown foods in the past several years, but retail outlets have varying definitions of what’s considered local, Hance said.

The law’s intent, he said, is to give consumers confidence that fresh produce and other foods labeled as “local” are truly local.

“There’s a little misinterpretation, and we hope this will clear it up,” he said.

Retailers have stepped up promotion and variety of locally grown foods in recent years, aiming to capitalize on consumer perceptions that such products are safer and healthier.

The movement includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the top U.S. food retailer.

During summer months, locally grown fruits and vegetables from within a particular state account for a fifth of the fresh produce available in Wal-Mart stores, according to the Bentonville, Ark.-based company’s Web site.

But unlike organic foods, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is no regulatory oversight of what can be labeled “local.”

That’s probably the way it should be, said Reggie Brown, executive vice presi-dent of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, Maitland.

“You could get into an unending debate on how you define local,” Brown said. “For the government to step in and arbitrarily define that, what’s the purpose? The marketplace seems to be making the necessary steps to take care of that. Have we ever defined ‘fresh?’”

Any definition of locally grown food “needs to have a robust national debate,” Western Growers’ McInerney said. The needs of producers who predominantly feed America from different geographical locations should be balanced with those who are producing locally for typically a very short marketing season, he said.

Still, absent any established standards, some retailers have exaggerated or abused the concept, said J. Allen Swann, who grows cantaloupes, peaches, sweet corn, tomatoes and watermelons at Swann Farms, near Owings, Md.

Swann said he’s seen produce from Georgia, South Carolina and upstate New Jersey branded “local” at some Maryland retailers.

“You’ve got to be careful using ‘local’ too much,” Swann said, adding that he’d like to see rules requiring that any local product carry a label stating where it was grown.

“Just say where it’s from, and the consumer can make the judgment,” Swann said.

“The time is good for something like this,” he said, referring to Maryland’s new law.

Hance, said he doesn’t want a law that’s too restrictive — that requires county of origin labeling or confines local food to a specific geographic distance, for example.