Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

The marketing nuances around the topic of “local food” are complex. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple question: What is local food?

Of course, there is no answer. By rights, there should be.

I asked the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group on LinkedIn this question: “Should ‘local’ be formally defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state authorities?”

The Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group, now 2,030 members strong, provided a whopping 49 comments to the question I posed.

Well, what did the group think about the idea? Not much.

Some brought up mandatory country of origin labeling, remarking that retailers were right after all about the need for COOL. Why create more bureaucracy and expense for no reason?

Here is one remark about the prospect of USDA or state authorities breaking out pad and pen to define “local”:

I also wholeheartedly agree that the government should stay away from spending time and money studying the meaning of “local” in our industry.

Instead, it should spend more time generating jobs for people in the farming and retail sectors. Jobs are what is needed, not defining words.

The word “local” in our business has somewhat become fuzzy and blurred, but I don’t feel the industry needs additional rules and regulations piled on top of those we already have, especially coming from government. This is not really a complicated business. We just tend to exaggerate it at times. We all should know that “local” means confined to the area of a community. Therefore, produce items referred to as “locally grown” should originate from nearby surrounding community farms, not distances of 200, 300 or more miles away.

Hold on now.

In my thinking, the comment above is precisely the reason that local should be defined.

“We all should know” is the type of assumption that is impossible to get everyone to buy into. Of course, we all don’t agree. Some retailers think local food can come from 200, 300 or 400 miles away, or within the same state.

Others believe “local” means much closer, from “the community.”

One comment, however, saw the need for a definition:

What is the local claim about? Is it for local patriotism in support of the neighborhood, or is it more about environmental responsibility? I think in either case, whatever the claim is, it needs to be substantiated, in case of the environmental responsibility with some possibility to validate and verify the distance traveled to the store. I actually do not care where it would be regulated. I would care about how it is regulated, so that any and all of these credence attribute claims are verifiable for the consumer.

In my view, if “local” is to mean anything, it must be defined. Isn’t it true that many people mark the start of the USDA’s National Organic Program as a watershed moment for the organic industry?

If “local” means something different for every marketer, then it has no meaning.

Why not formally define local in relation to food and fresh produce? Wouldn’t a USDA-certified “Local” seal carry some weight with consumers and also dispense with truth-bending merchandising?

Let local mean something — whether that definition settles on 10 miles or 400 miles from point of sale.

I appreciate the disdain the industry has for government regulation, and the idea of inspectors visiting stores to inspect “local” claims is unappealing for many reasons.

There is no need for inspectors and a new bureaucracy, just a need for a proper definition that the shipping and retail community can apply and self-police with integrity.

Yes, cucumbers from the village farm are local, and pears from South Africa are not. But can’t we reduce the consumer gray area for all the produce in between?

If not USDA or FDA rulemaking, why can’t the Produce Marketing Association or the Food Marketing Institute establish a definition for local that would be standard for all fresh produce marketers/retailers?

Let “local” mean something more than merchandising props and a contrived farm stand bin. Let it mean what it means, and let the consumer decide if that substantiated claim is worth caring about.

tkarst@thepacker.com

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